Our political parties need more than a financial fix

I doubt if pollsters could find a single person to interview who did not believe that payments of large sums to political parties were unconnected to peerages awarded. Certainly no-one in the Westminster hothouse would believe otherwise, whatever they have to say officially.

In addition few amongst those who bother to read the nuances would believe that the soliciting and receiving of millions in loans rather than as gifts was other than a way of avoiding having to name the individuals concerned. It leaves a very bitter taste and undermines the political process still further.

The blatant way it has been done, the size of the sums involved and the widespread exposure it has received could well have a salutary effect. The need to exclude all possibility of paying for peerages is a powerful argument for having an entirely elected House of Lords. Thus far this eminently desirable aim has foundered on two apparently unachievable aims: first, the wish to have peers from a broader base than the kind of party faithful who would fill up the nominations if the process merely echoed that of the House of Commons, and, second, the need to avoid the second chamber having a greater democratic accountability than the first.

There is one way to square this apparent circle and it requires a preferential voting system and a relatively small number of constituencies, each electing enough members of the second chamber to enable independents to be elected and to encourage parties to put forward a broader range of candidates in order to maximise their chances.

To give a House of Lords of 234 members it would simply require each existing European Parliament constituency to elect in total three times the number of existing MEPs and for the present constituencies to be divided to give between six and eight peers per seat. The electors are then asked to list as many candidates as they wish to support in order of preference. Using the Single Transferable Vote, votes not needed to elect a popular candidate are transferred to each voter's next preference. If at any stage no candidate has such a "surplus" the bottom candidate is excluded and his or her votes move on to the next preference.

The principle is simple, even if the counting process sounds complex. The Irish - north and south - have used it for years, and the Scots will use it from next year for their local elections. By its very nature such a system is likely to produce a far broader range of opinions and backgrounds, plus a number of cross benchers, without having a rigid party focus to challenge the House of Commons.

By electing all members of the Lords, all possibility of paying for peerages is removed. This leaves the vexed question of the funding of political parties.

Public funding of parties already exists in a number of specific ways. There is the free post to every elector of each candidate's election address at parliamentary elections; there are free party political broadcasts on all the main terrestrial television and radio channels; and there are substantial funds going to each party group in parliament to assist their research and their political work in the House of Commons. The availability of this latter cash has increasingly transferred policy development from the party headquarters to the parliamentary whips'offices. The party in the country has less and less influence on the party in parliament, bringing less and less incentive for individual involvement in local branches of any party.

It is the decline in membership of political parties that has hit the their incomes and has increasingly forced them to rely on fewer and bigger donations. It is hard for anyone to argue that this is anything other than a very unhealthy development - the vexed question is what to do about it.

Labour's reliance on trade union funding - itself increasingly precarious - has its roots in the need to find a means of combating the private finance available to Conservative and Liberal parties. Some political "fixers" were shrewd enough to see what was coming. In 1890, with remarkable foresight, the secretary of Leeds Liberal Association, John Shackleton Mathers, warned local MP, Herbert Gladstone, that unless the Liberal party dealt with the concerns of working men, "a great Labour party would spring up and sweep aside both Tories and Liberals as such and govern for themselves. You may think this Utopian, it only remains so until the hour, and not a moment beyond, when the masses have accumulated funds to sustain their men for their cause." His warning went unheeded, despite Mathers being, in the words of Sir Wemyss Reid, the editor of The Leeds Mercury, "simply the best organiser and wire puller I ever met."

Having for almost a hundred years benefited from those "accumulated funds", Labour is now itself relying on the millionaires, and the siren voices in favour of public funding of political parties have brought it back on to the agenda. The argument that it would be healthier to rely on public finance than on rich individuals is seductive but it has a number of flaws. First, given that any formula for such funding has to be based in one way or another on votes and seats at a previous election, it benefits existing parties and entrenches the present party structure. Second, if simply doled out to parties without conditions, thus reducing the need for a mass membership, it would further accelerate the decline in party democracy. The advent of substantial public funding for French political parties has had precisely this latter effect.

There are a number of possible halfway houses. One would be to tie public funding to party membership so that a party received a "bonus" for each member recruited. Another possibility would be to follow the Swedish pattern and to provide public funding for party research, policy formation and for membership education. In theory this enables money to be switched from these categories into direct campaigning but, given how little is currently spent by parties on any intellectual activity, it would hardly be significant.

However it is done, public funding of parties is no panacea. It deals with the symptoms of the political malaise rather than the disease itself. At the heart of our political system is the massive alienation of the electorate from the mainstream of party politics. Even at its lowest expression, only some 60% of those registered can be bothered to vote in a general election. If the turnout reaches half that in next month's local elections it will be surprising. Party membership is at an all time low and still falling.

Given such disillusion, it will hardly be greeted with unmitigated joy to have even a tiny part of one's taxes going to the political parties. The involvement in green issues and the public concern with the Iraq war shows that people are interested in politics - it's just parties they don't like. To persuade the public that to influence the future requires healthy and attractive political parties will take more than a financial fix.

3 April 2006