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26 March 2012updated 02 Mar 2015 12:12pm

Mehdi Hasan: The time has come for the state funding of political parties

The status quo is unsustainable and the argument for reform is overwhelming.

By Mehdi Hasan

Would you be willing to fork out 50p a year to help clean up British politics? I don’t know about you but I would. Happily. So, too, would the Independent’s Mary Ann Sieghart:

How much do you care if our government was being corrupted by shady donors? What would you be prepared to pay once a year to stop it happening? The cost of half a pint of beer? Too much? How about a pound coin? Still too much? Surely we can settle for 50p then, the price of a first-class stamp?

That is the minuscule charge to us of preventing the disgusting practices that now contaminate our politics. . .

She’s right. It is truly miniscule. That 50p figure comes from an authoritative and recent (November 2011) report by Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee on standards in public life. A prescient Kelly warned that “as long as the system is as open to corruption as the present arrangements, the possibility of another scandal must remain”. Enter Peter Cruddas. . .

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From the Guardian, in November:

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The committee also proposed that from 2015 there should be a £3-per-vote state funding for the parties, representing £23m a year over five years. This amounts to 50p per elector a year, little more than the cost of a first-class stamp.

The committee also proposed that union political levy payers be required to state in writing that they wish to affiliate to the party, and so sanction the donation of £3 per individual to the party from the union’s political fund.

The committee also proposed a 15% cut in the amount parties can spend in an election campaign. Total campaign spending over a parliament per party should be £25.4m, it said.

All three parties rejected the proposals as politically untenable amid the current austerity.

Where is Ed Miliband this morning? Why hasn’t he held a press conference and announced his support for serious reform, including a cap on donations and the £3-per-vote measure suggested by Kelly and co? What’s he waiting for? David Cameron to outflank him on reform of party funding in the same way that the Tory leader outflanked Gordon Brown on reform of MPs’ expenses?

Let’s deal with the two most common objections to state funding: the practical one and the principled one. The practical one says that in our “age of austerity” and in the wake of the afore-mentioned expenses scandal, it would be near-impossible to persuade the public to sign up to state funding, to having the revenue from their precious taxes diverted towards political parties. Or as Baroness Warsi, the Conservative Party chair, put it in November:

[T]he public will simply not accept a plan to hand over almost £100m of taxpayers’ money to politicians.

I don’t buy this. For a start, the 50p figure, in my view, is sellable to Joe Public. Come on, it’s the cost of a first-class stamp! Warsi talks of “£100m” (I assume she gets this amount from adding up the £23m-per-annum cost over four years) as if it some huge, unaffordable sum of public money. Yet, in December, her leader, the Prime Minister, clicked his fingers and doubled the budget for the opening and closing ceremonies of the London Olympics – from £40m to £80m. That we can afford? Really? But we can’t spare £100m over four years to clean up British politics? To help fix a broken, discredited and unpopular party funding system? Critics of state funding refer to it as the “state funding of politicians” which, of course, is a phrase that turns off voters. Supporters of reform, therefore, should refer to it as the “state funding of democracy”.

Then there’s the so-called principle behind opposing such funding. It’s wrong, say the critics, for the state to fund political parties. It’s undemocratic and statist. This is nonsense. First, free-market, small-government America has no such “principled” objection to the state funding of presidential candidates – in 2008, Republican candidate John McCain turned down “matching funds” in the primaries but then took them in the general election.

Second, the same political parties and politicians who say state funding is wrong in principle refuse to acknowledge or recognise that we already have a form of state funding: it’s called “short money”.

From Wikipedia:

Short Money is the common name given to the annual payment to Opposition parties in the United Kingdom House of Commons to help them with their costs. . .

. . .The current scheme is administered under a Resolution of the House of Commons of 26 May 1999. Short Money is made available to all opposition parties in the House of Commons that secured either two seats or one seat and more than 150,000 votes at the previous general election.

The scheme has three components:

Funding to assist an opposition party in carrying out its Parliamentary business
Funding for the opposition parties’ travel and associated expenses
Funding for the running costs of the Leader of the Opposition’s office

In 2009/10, the Tory opposition led by David Cameron took £4m in taxpayer-funded short money; in 2010/11, Labour under Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband took £4.6m.

So let’s have a little less moralising from our politicians about the supposed evils of state funding. They should just get on with fixing our broken system of party funding. The status quo is unsustainable – and an embarrassment.