Bankrupt policies at the heart of parties' cash crisis

Today's revelations by the Electoral Commission that our political parties are massively in debt do nothing to enhance the status of our electoral processes. If our major parties were PLCs they would all be actually or potentially bankrupt. It is a sad story of reliance on huge gifts and loans, often from dodgy individuals and, in a number of cases, all too coincidentally linked to the award of honours, including peerages.

All this is a recent development. For over a hundred years British politics maintained a deserved reputation for the financial integrity of its electoral process. Honours were indeed sold and party organisation was financed by rich individuals or, in the case of Labour, by the trade unions, but the electoral process itself was remarkably free of financial manipulation. This was because, unlike the American system, we controlled the expenditure rather than the income.

The election expense return, on which until recently the candidate's or agent's signature had to witnessed by a Justice of the Peace, was a formidable document. Every item of expenditure had to be entered, no discounts were allowed and, on the income side, all gifts in kind had to be included. I doubt if many electors are aware that a candidate or party may not hire vehicles to transport voters, and that it is even forbidden to make use of vehicles that are normally available for hire. The aim is to prevent a rich taxi owner candidate or supporter from providing free vehicles.

There is a cash limit for each constituency, based on the number of electors, and this process worked reasonably well for decades until it became clear that central expenditure by the party headquarters on opinion polling, poster sites, political broadcast productions and centralised mailings was growing massively. Eventually a cap was placed on this central expenditure and this expenditure too has to be declared.

However, there are no limits on expenditure between elections, and it is this, and the maintenance of the party machines, that is driving the need to dredge up cash from the murky ocean depths.

The parties seem to have lost all awareness of how the public react to these revelations. What was the response of all three major parties to the Electoral Commission's statement yesterday? Did they put their hands up and confess all? Did they seek to open up a debate on the need to enhance the health of our political structures? Did they look for a dialogue with the electorate on why they have opted out of politics in droves? Not on your life. As usual they attacked each other in a vain attempt to paint themselves are minor criminals and the others as major culprits.

Mind you, with the Electoral Commission insisting that commercial interest rates must be paid, and a repayment schedule agreed for its loans, it hardly encourages membership recruiting when just about every penny of individual subscriptions will go to service and repay loans.

The desperate obsessive compulsion to win or to retain political power drives parties to extreme measures. Shorn of idealism and lacking commitment to any distinctive political philosophy, the parties scan the horizon, listening out for any whisper of rescue, and fling themselves into the arms of any individual with a large cheque book. The belief that asking for loans rather than donations could avoid scrutiny was only one of the subterfuges relied on by the party fundraisers, who, in some cases went to considerable lengths to inhibit the public declaration of the loan. Fortunately for political transparency their sins found them out and the Electoral Commission has insisted on disclosure. Even more debilitating for the health of our political process, Scotland Yard is still investigating possible linkages between loans, donations and honours.

Our political lords and masters will have to concede sooner or later that there is no substitute for basing a party on a fundamental philosophy, ie a distinct view of society; that they have to develop a set of policies based on its philosophic base; and that they will have to go out and persuade the electors to support those political positions. There is no lack of political interest amongst the electorate - the millions of individuals who join and work for ecological organisations, who march against the war in Iraq, who belong to the National Trust or who are passionate about local community projects, demonstrate the inherent will to be involved in their own future. Unfortunately the politicians have lost the ability to enthuse and excite those self- same people into channelling their energies into the political means of realising those aims and desires.

There is a case for public funds going into political research, publishing and public debate, but there is no case for funding party organisations as a way of delaying their inevitable collapse. Taxing us to rescue the parties from their own deficiencies would rightly be regarded as a cynical tactic and would alienate the public still further.

The current revelations ring loud warning bells and the first party to heed their message and to tackle the problem at its roots will reap a considerable political reward.

23 August 2006