(a) What’s proposed
The whole financial flow of state funding for all political parties that have representatives in the House of Commons (as a proxy for overall current national legitimacy, and to exclude the BNP and other nasties) should be reversed, in order to promote local political activity and devolve power within parties to the ’grassroots’.
The total amount of state funding should be equivalent ONLY to the amount of funding provided indirectly to political parties in the forms of MP allowances, ministerial allowances etc. and, for example, funds spent by the BBC on allowing free party political broadcasts. There would therefore be no overall additional cost to the taxpayer. Indeed, a saving might be made.
The overall ‘pot’ of money should then be divided up at a local level e.g. CLP level/Tory association level on a pro-rata basis according to membership at the start of the financial year. It would be up to the parties themselves to debate and decide on what amount of this locally allocated resource should be allocated to national party levels.
If the Labour party want to involve trade unions in those discussions, that’s up to the Labour party etc. The important change would be that, as with the money – if formally lodged with local parties in the first instance – the power balance between centre and local is changed, in my view for the better.
All other types of donations would be permissable, but could only be made to local parties, and would not exceed a certain ratio of private donation to state funding (level to be agreed). Individual donors would only be able to donate to a limited number (let us say 3 for arguments sake) of local parties in this way, of which one would need to be the donor’s area of residence.
Unions would abide by the same rules, with each union branch counting as an individual donor. There would be an expectation that the ratios of state to donor funding permissable would fall over the first few years, as the money is replaced my membership fees in rejuvenated local parties (see below).
(b) Rationale and consequences
The reversal of financial flows, as set out briefly would do two main things.
First, and important enough in the current context of poor public opinion of both MPs and national level political parties, it would make them much more accountable to the local parties that selected them to stand for office (whether parliamentary or intra-party) in the first place.
For example, the money that used to go straight to their MP expenses bank accounts to fund e.g. local offices, local staff as well as their day-to-day personal expenses will be lodged, alongside any other matching funds, with the local party. The MP will need to justify her/his claim to a section of the overall local party ‘pot’, perhaps by setting out a ‘business plan’ for an appropriate period and justifying costs.
In most cases, local parties are going to want an MP who does plenty of casework and local representation, as well as ‘performing’ for them in parliament as they want them to, and will provide a reasonable budget for this, including an OK place to live in London during the week and that kind of thing.
If the MP can justify 1st class travel on the train, for example, because it allows them to get more work done, then that’s fine. If not, that’s fine too. If the local party thinks it might be a better idea if the MP’s office and the local party office functions should be merged to rationalise stuff, then they’ll have the final say.
Equally, national level parties will have to seek money from local parties to carry out their functions. Thus, for example, if the national party wanted to spend money on TV adverts, they’d have to seek the money for it from local parties, probably via (revitalised) party conferences. Local parties might decide instead to approve alternative plans to set up Obama-style IT-based networks, and that would be up to them.
That’s all very well, and all done with the same money as was spent before, just with the decision-making power totally reversed by ‘statute’.
Cynical readers will already however have spotted that, while it’s all very well to devolve power to local parties, this is hardly the same as devolving to local people; local parties are, after all, weak structures, peopled if they are peopled at all by self-selecting, self-referential nobodies with few brain cells to rub together, will run the argument. This argument will come, not least, from party HQs themselves desperate to retain the status quo of the power and money structure, and who are distrustful of the capacity of the ‘foot soldier’ activists.
That, after all, is what is writ large in both main parties’ ’motivational’ literature, and in the many central government documents, influenced by the policy wonks at HQ or at Downing Street – the view that local parties are a thing of the past, that local politics can safely be done away with in favour of technocratic management of CLPs/Tory associations, where the only expectations are lip service to policy reviews and, more important, to campaigning with HQ-sanctioned leaflets, HQ-sanctioned IT set-ups which alienate people ‘on the doorstep’ because they’ve been created by people who’ve never been ‘on the doorstep and don’t realise asking questions of people while ticking off their answers on a pre-arranged coded list is not the same as talking to people like they are people.
The point is that, with a reversal of the financial flow, with what a local party gets dependent on their membership, local parties will suddenly become different beasts.
With money comes the capacity to ‘do stuff’, and combined with a new motivation within existing membership to draw in members, there would almost certainly be a rapid rise in membership, as people actually start to see a point – a decision making point – to being in their party of choice.
They suddenly get not just the opportunity to decide, as a member, on how the MP should use their money (or whether to give them any at all), but also to decide, for example, on whether the party, and by newly re-established link, the area as a whole, will be best served by the state funding going into a dozen leaflets, or into a playscheme the Council won’t pay for.
And suddenly, the way opens up for parties to become mass parties again. At local level, people will engage because engagement matters, and it won’t be long before there is a much smaller distinction between ‘the party’ and the people those parties have, rhetorically, at least, been set up to serve.
As set out above, as membership increases in this way, so will the opportunity to legislate on the permitted ratio of private donations to local funding, as the membership fee total will be counted into this whole. As membership grows therefore, so does democratic entitlement, whereby you don’t have to be called Ashcroft to have your say on what your party does with the cash.
In terms of the Labour party, the obvious additional opportunities will lie in the possibility of renewing the link with trade unions, via membership fees, and in some cases starting even to develop the local party organically as the ‘workers’ council’ in the way aspired to years ago but never really attained because of the very constraints on power, from above, that I have set out above.
Of course, I don’t see the ‘powers-that-be’ leaping up and down with joy at the thought of having their money removed and given to someone else to decide how they might spend it if they behave themselves, but I’d like to see a challenge laid down to them.
The challenge is best in question form, and reflects in part this useful critique of ‘freedom’ (and allied concepts) set out by Dave at Though Cowards Flinch.
‘So what do you have against a proposal to actually do what, in paper after paper after speech after speech after speech you have said you want to do – to empower people?
‘What do you have against a proposal to hand over power in a way which does not cost more money, and which comes without any of the financial and legal hang-ups that come when you try to ‘empower communities’ through supposedly allowing them influence on local public policy and local public spending, but in tautologous reality only allows them to do this if they tick YOUR boxes about what communities are, how they should behave, and how they should spend the money (another post to follow from me on the discursive complexities of how ‘empowerment’ is ‘disempowering’)?
‘What do you have against a real ‘freedom’ – freedom to build parties anew, to build democracy? Are you scared of the power you’ll lose, or are you with us?’
Paul Cotterill is the leader of the Labour Group on West Lancashire Borough CouncilLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.