With the latest party funding scandals having been predicted by Sir Christopher Kelly just a few months ago, many are calling for Kelly’s report with the Committee for Public Standards to be implemented in full, including a £10k cap on individual donations and state funding to the tune of £3 per vote.
As CPS Director Tim Knox stated yesterday on BBC Radio 5 Live with Richard Bacon, such proposals would be a disaster for democracy. One only has to look across the shores to America where the use of new political communication has been said by many to have revitalised the nation’s democracy through the re-ignition of political parties as mass-membership organisations. Clearly, Barack Obama is held up as the foremost example of this – with his positive message of change (change, and more change) inspiring hundreds of thousands of small donations mostly through the internet. The money rolling into the coffers was important not just in cash terms; it represented the strength of support for candidate Obama amongst the Democratic grassroots and helped propel him to victory in the nomination process over Senator Clinton.
American politics, however, is full of underdog candidates utilising new communication techniques to succeed, or at least come close. Howard Dean, Democratic candidate in 2004, foreshadowed Obama’s use of technology to come out of nowhere. Dean’s campaign is credited with revolutionising modern technology-based campaigning methods and Obama built on this knowledge and delivered what Dean couldn’t despite the innovation and endorsement of Al Gore – a legitimately electable candidate.
George W. Bush himself was fantastic at appealing to his Republican core, and some evidence actually theorises he may have inspired as many small donors as Barack Obama after him. In 2008 and 2012, we have also had the rise and rise of Ron Paul. Paul, much like Dean before him, is not electable as President of the United States. But he is the load-bearer for a political vision – libertarianism. In 2008, this caused supporters to flock to Paul on the internet, and he topped virtually all online polls of the Republican field. In 2012, Paul’s team has built on their success and sought to put across his critique of big government supporting ‘Demo-publicans’ on social media and YouTube far more successfully than his colleagues in the Republican field use online media. That Paul hung in the race despite being ignored by mainstream print and broadcast media is testament to his online power. He remains an unlikely President himself, but his run is not really about a Paul presidency. His use of technology has inspired a groundswell of supporters fed up with governments of both kind and seeking a mass repeal of the state. His candidacy is laying a framework for libertarians to seize the reigns of the Republican Party in the future from the big government-ers and social conservatives.
The base tool for each of these politicians is small donations from masses of supporters – it is both what has given them purpose to innovate and driven them on further. This is something called for by the CPS and Direct Democracy in our ‘Open Politics’ paper in 2007, as Douglas Carswell MP highlighted yesterday.
The UK already has partly state funded political parties in the form of opposition funding. Government, with access to an army of civil servants and institutions of state has an inherent advantage over those parties in opposition, so they are given support to hold the government to account. This isn’t ideal but some consider it necessary. State funding for all political parties – so that they rely on the taxpayers’ forced benevolence to exist – is an entirely more disastrous prospect. It institutionalises the three main political parties and would in effect make them official arms of the state – as reliant on government as the NHS or the Ministry of Defence yet with the private interest they currently retain. Although state funding may prevent another ‘dinner scandal’, it would not prevent scandal in politics. What would be the reaction if the expenses scandal happened under a state-funded system which then supported those candidates in re-election?
The proposal for financial support also entrenches the larger political parties in the system. Sure the Conservatives and Liberals have existed for hundreds of years, with Labour’s own century in the big two unlikely to end anytime soon. That doesn’t mean we should be anything less than democratic purists. Otherwise we are arguing that the FA Cup should only be between the Champions League clubs every season because they are going to win it anyway.
Political parties exist only because of the degree of support they are given by their supporters. No party, no matter how far back it can trace its origins, or whether it was once led by Gladstone, Churchill or Attlee, has a right to survive. In a future, far-off election if UKIP, the Greens or the UK Pirate Party are to be the party of innovation and inspiration then so be it. Funding for political parties can dry up just as fast as it can be inspired. State funding would guarantee a cash flow to a Tory or Labour Party that inspired very few to donate or get involved – one that might even be electorally crippled otherwise if, say, it lost its trade union paymasters and failed to change. The UK is a different political animal to the USA and does not have a candidate-centred system. As such, the disadvantaging of smaller parties damages the chances of seeing our own Obama or Paul. In fact, it discourages it.
While American candidates look to social media and technology to inspire and innovate the masses to get involved, state funding in the UK would be the catalyst for a new era of total political disengagement and lazy, introverted state parties uninterested in appealing to a broad church of supporters.