Reforms to party funding can strengthen local politics

The report on funding for political parties published today outlines some interesting ideas for reforming the way that politics works in the United Kingdom, improving it in some ways but possibly making it worse in others.

The direction of progress is revealed by the title of the report: “Political party finance – Ending the big donor culture”.  The aim is to reduce the influence that a few people can have on British politics by virtue of the fact that they are willing to spend a lot of money on it.  Capping individual donations at £10,000 would end some of the fawning and scraping that politicians are obliged to do towards the nation’s wealthy, but without freeing them from private donors altogether.

This website is in favour of people making donations in order to fund political activity (full disclosure: this website is funded by such donations itself) and the more people who make donations the better.  This should be treated as a sign of the health of a democracy.

If the financial load is spread in one sense, it is possibly concentrated in another.  There is the separate proposal that the shortfall in income that would result from a donations cap should be made up by public funds distributed to parties in proportion to the votes they receive in elections.  A figure of £3 per vote is suggested for general elections, or £1.50 per vote in European and devolved elections.

This proposal aligns the financial incentive with an electoral incentive – winning votes – but it runs the risk of fuelling centralisation.  Wealthy donors are going to be less able to spread their generosity among local political parties: even more of the income, both from donors and from the state, will accrue to the national level.

It has been remarked in the past that the introduction of Short money – public funding for political parties in opposition – and its steady increase over the years has, while improving the quality and professionalism of national party politics, shifted the balance of power within those political parties.  The parliamentary arm of each party is considerably strengthened compared with the voluntary arm, particularly in terms of the number of staff it can employ, and the culture of each political party changes as a result.  The ins and outs of Westminster become progressively more absorbing and the concerns of the rest of the country are less visible or noticed.

A way to redress this imbalance would be to pay the £3 per vote bounty not to the national party but to the local party in each constituency where these votes were won.  That local party might then make a contribution to national funds if it chose to, but such payments should be at local discretion and not at national demand.  A change of this sort would pop the Westminster bubble and make it harder for the national leadership to embark on flights of fancy leaving their grassroots membership behind.

This blog has observed before that democratic participatory politics is being hollowed out.  Here is a small means of reversing that unwelcome trend.

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