“Action should be taken now to end the big donor culture before another scandal does further damage.” – These were the words of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its report (pdf) on funding political parties published in November last year.
Given the latest round of clashes over the subject in the wake of Cruddasgate it is hard not to think that Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee did not have some sort of crystal ball as they were preparing their report.
Yesterday’s heated and quite frankly bitter exchanges in the Commons between Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, and Labour leader Ed Miliband were symbolic of all the public hates about politics.
At a time when living standards are declining, people fear for their jobs and the health service faces one of its biggest shake ups in its history, we were treated to the sight not of humility, but two attack dogs, jabbing fingers at each other across the Despatch Box, bawling and shouting about who was in whose pockets.
Don’t get me wrong – the issue of party finance is important. For democracy to work properly the public need to have confidence that every section of the society can get a fair crack of the whip based on the power of their arguments rather than the size of their wallets.
It is for this reason that latest allegations over Tory donors gaining influence is such a problem for a party already seen, especially following the budget, as standing up primarily for their rich friends.
But putting the individual case aside, the issue of funding remains toxic for all parties with Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats tainted, leading to a perception in the public’s minds they are all as bad as each other.
What we need now is genuine dialogue away from the heat of battle, which has seen, for example, LabourList and ConservativeHome turning the debate on party funding into less of an attempt to find a way forward and more calculation about how Ed Miliband and David Cameron can best use the issue of funding to beat each other up.
• Party funding reform: Why the cap may not fit 18 Oct 2010
The fact is that for one or other of them the crisis now facing the body politic presents an opportunity to seize the agenda, to be bold and to be genuine agents for change rather than talking change whilst defending the status quo.
In its report (pdf), having recognised that political parties “play an essential role in UK democracy”, the Committee on Standards in Public Life argued that the way forward was a cap on individual donations of £10,000, an inevitable consequences of which would, it argued, be “an increase in support for the parties from public funds” which they suggest would amount to 50p per voter per year.
It may be a difficult sell to a sceptical public, but just imagine the opportunities it could present to make political parties genuinely exciting things to be part off.
With membership of said parties in close to terminal decline, seeking more, smaller donations and being funded in part by the taxpayer would mean the parties were a) more accountable; b) would genuinely need to reach out to their paymasters which would be everyone; and c) would be about as transparent as they could be.
As Mehdi Hasan argued in the New Statesman:
“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.”
For too long we have presided over the withering away of political parties as exciting places to be: for Labour the control freakery which permeates across much of the party leadership and head office has stifled debate and cast those with gripes about the direction of the party to the wilderness; for the Conservatives, also, one has to wonder what the point of being a member actually is.
At conference after conference are not our TV sets filled with Tory activists nodding off in their seats by set pieces speeches and meetings which require no vote or debates over policy motions at all. Dare we say it, at least in the Lib Dems you get the chance for a good old airing of dirty laundry in public with debates that can and often do lead to embarrassment for their leader.
The prospect of public funding for political parties, whilst not on its own a panacea, has the potential to play an important part in breathing new life into those very same parties. It’s just time someone picked the idea and ran with it.