Taxpayer funding for political parties? Why not pensions for life for armed robbers too?

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Not the only bubble that’s burst

Whether it’s General Motors or RBS, no failing enterprise has ever truly breathed its last before gasping the plea for taxpayer funding. ‘Dinnergate’ provided the opportunity for Britain’s failing political parties to utter the immortal words.

In the general election of 1951 Labour and the Conservatives got over 95 percent of the vote between them. Labour got 13.9 million votes, the victorious Conservatives, by a quirk of the electoral system, 12.6 million. In the general election of 2005 labour and the Conservatives got just over 67 percent of the vote between them. The victorious Labour party got 9.5 million votes, the Conservatives 8.7 million. Losing that sort of market share is catastrophic.

Though obscured by First Past the Post the trend in British politics in the post war period is clear; a decreasing number of British voters are interested in either main party.

This increasing lack of interest in either the Conservatives or Labour has also been reflected in falling membership numbers. Perhaps counter intuitively for the self proclaimed party of the working man, Labour party membership has always lagged Conservative party membership. But, even so, in 1953 Labour had more than 1 million members and the Conservatives had 2.8 million.

With occasional reverses Labour party membership fell steadily until 1979 by which time it had fallen by a third to 666,000 members. Then came the Winter of Discontent and, as well as losing power to Margaret Thatcher, Labour lost a staggering 318,000 members in one year.

By the late 1960s the Conservatives had fallen to 1.1 million members but held steady until the early 1990s. From 1 million members just prior to Thatcher’s ousting in 1990 membership had halved to 500,000 in 1992.

But even these figures now look like some halcyon age of mass participation. By 2010 Conservative party membership had slumped to 177,000 while Labour was enjoying a “surge” in membership to 60,000 – a disappointing crowd at Old Trafford. No wonder that Britain’s political parties now find themselves in the position of a busted bank or bankrupt car company.

In the absence of membership fees the effect has been a reliance on ever fewer donors giving ever more money. Lord Ashcroft kept the Conservatives going almost single handed in the wilderness years after 1997. Labour, out of power and drifting to the left, holds little appeal for those with bulging wallets; Labour received just 13 private donations in the year from September 2010. Labour is now reliant on the trade unions (who themselves represent just a fraction of the workforce they used to) for over 80 percent of its funding.

The politicians’ ever greater flattery of their ever fewer donors is a nauseating sight and when it doesn’t cross the line into the criminal it certainly radiates a sleazy impression, as with Cameron’s latest kerfuffle.

The proposal for taxpayer funding of political parties is usually floated in the wake of such scandals. Perhaps because the threat of bankruptcy is very real for the Labour party (a rare example of politicians practising in private what they do in office) the demand for taxpayer funding has come loudest from the left. In the wake of Dinnergate, a Conservative scandal remember, the New Statesman carried articles by Labour MP Denis McShane and Mehdi Hasan arguing for taxpayer funding of political parties. As McShane put it, there is a need “for democracy to pay for democracy”

There is nothing of the sort. There is, instead, simply the desperate desire for members of failing enterprises like Britain’s major political parties to be bailed out. If you won’t give them your money voluntarily they will take it straight out of your paycheque.

Hasan quoted the Independent’s Mary Ann Sieghart saying that “our government was being corrupted by shady donors” so we must introduce taxpayer funding. This idea, that because we cannot trust politicians to raise money honestly we must give it to them in taxes, is absurd. By that way of thinking we would ‘punish’ armed robbery by giving the robbers pensions for life.

The question few seem to ask is why this is happening. Why are our major political parties becoming so noxious that Labour, with a 10 point lead in the polls, can lose a safe seat to a sectarian bigot? Why do 72 percent of voters see the Conservative party as “out of touch”? Answer that and you have a solution to party funding which doesn’t involve taxing people more.

There are long term secular trends. In terms of voting the decline can be attributed to some mixture of weakening class identification and growing disillusionment with both main parties’ inability to deliver on their grand promises. In terms of membership people join thing things less than they used to whether it’s political parties or the Dennis the Menace Fan Club.

But there’s another factor. Why should people give money to people who don’t like them? When Gordon Brown was overheard calling a lifelong Labour voter a “bigoted woman” just for asking some valid questions about immigration he revealed more than he knew. He revealed that the Labour party is run by a metropolitan elite which views its core voters in places like Rochdale as a bunch of unreformed hicks.

The same goes for the Conservatives. The strategy behind Team Cameron was that if they alienated enough of their core vote they would attract enough Guardian readers to more than make up for it. It failed. In the Telegraph Iain Martin wrote that “A fundamental miscalculation was the decision by this group to ape Mr Blair and define themselves in opposition to their party and their core supporters.” You can understand why Conservative party members might balk at giving money, or votes, to people who view them like this.

The truth is that both Labour and the Conservatives are run by people who don’t like Labour or Conservative voters very much. Those voters are entitled to keep their hands in their pockets and not have them picked by taxpayer funding.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

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