When impeccably connected Conservative journalists start reporting that David Cameron is considering introducing the state funding of political parties in return for Lib Dem support for the boundary review it is time to take notice. What would be the implications of such a policy? What risks does it pose?
At the present time, political parties are financed by voluntary donations, either made by wealthy individuals, or organisations including large companies or trade unions. A fair argument can be made that these donations are given in order to influence the political direction of the recipient, in a manner which subverts the democratic principle that wealth should not buy political power. In theory, if the state removed the need for parties to rely on these sources of finance, then parties would act in the interest of the electorate rather than in the interests of their financial backers.
There is, however, a serious problem with this in practice. If the state is to remove the influence of private funding, then private funding must be abolished altogether, otherwise the state will only be providing top up funds and private finance will retain its influence. In order to work as intended, all parties will have to become 100% state financed. If the state is funding all political parties then the state will have to decide what constitutes a legitimate political party. Will the Monster Raving Looney party receive state funding? It should be obvious that they would not, because they do not represent a legitimate political interest. How is this decided, and more importantly, by whom? On what criteria would a political party be banned?
Let’s move on to a more difficult example. The British National Party stands and has won elections in the UK. The act of doing so tragically proves that they do represent the views of a segment of the population. If this is the case then how could they be denied funding? Yet how can the state fund a vile organisation which is actively hostile (to the point of violence) towards millions of Britons? The answer is that it cannot.
Even if the problems associated with fringe parties are ignored (they cannot be resolved), state funding would damage mainstream centrist politics. The argument for state funding implicitly recognises that money buys power in election results. So how would state funds be divided between the parties? Allocating resources based on previous election results would have the effect of entrenching the present order, retarding the ‘kick the bastards out’ function of democracy. Allocating resources equally amongst all parties is an open invitation to anyone who can get 650 Facebook friends together, then say that each intended to stand in a constituency, to claim millions of pounds of state funds, without any benefit for the electorate at large. Party memberships would count for nothing, as the requirement for them would have disappeared. Incredibly, state funding is likely to produce a politics even more disconnected from the public than the one we have now.
The current form of party finance allows wealth to buy political power, and is in dire need of reform. To attempt to do so by introducing the state funding of political parties would be a grave error and if enacted would prove very difficult to reverse, as few politicians will be willing to give up easy finance. Yet this is the course of action the David Cameron is considering in order to change the electoral boundaries. He risks permanently damaging British democracy by doing so.