There is an alternative to murky donations from the super-rich

Published by The Guardian (26th July, 2014)

The funding of political parties has long been a weeping sore in the British body politic, but it is turning increasingly septic. On one side there are disturbing revelations of influential Russians buying access to our most senior politicians. On the other, union chiefs flex their financial muscles and intimidate a leader they placed into power.

Few democracies manage to avoid the drip-drip of financial scandals corroding politics; indeed, Britain’s often appear tame beside the corruption that curses countries such as France, Spain or the United States. But when there has been such devastating loss of faith in the system, we in Britain must consider alternatives to murky backslapping and dubious donations.

It is not just that there is something sordid about rich Russians paying many times the average annual British wage for a game of tennis with David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Perhaps these people really do just think they are buying their way into high society, along with sending their children to private schools and attending polo matches. Regardless, it seems more than suspicious to see Putin’s pals attend fundraising dinners and shower money on the Conservatives, joining lobbyists for the likes of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

But the other parties have little reason to crow about the Conservatives’ discomfort. The Liberal Democrats still refuse to hand back £2.4m donated by a convicted fraudster; and just witness Ed Miliband’s supine contortions over saying anything on recent public-sector strikes. If any donor held such sway over the Tories as Unite has over Labour, there would deservedly be an outcry.

Most politicians loathe the time they must spend sucking up to the super-rich and party funders; the wife of one prominent figure told me her stomach would turn behind her fixed smile at those dinners and auctions. For both main parties, the funding dilemma underlines a core weakness: namely, that the Tories are the party of the rich, while Labour is so in thrall to the public sector it can’t be trusted on the economy.

Behind these shenanigans lie more fundamental problems as the traditional two-party system collapses. Party memberships are crashing – the paid-up support the Conservatives had when Cameron became leader has declined by over half, which was itself barely one-fifth of the number when Margaret Thatcher took over the Tories. The average age of members is almost 70.

The 2011 Kelly review saw the solution as more state funding, yet this would only shore up enterprises that are clearly failing. It feels often that the main parties think their history gives them an unassailable right to survive. If so, it’s a misguided belief, with the digital age disrupting politics as it does so many other areas of life. Public contempt would also be fuelled if voters saw more of their taxes going to political parties at a time of spending cuts.

Far more sensible would be to adopt the review’s other key suggestion of a £10,000 cap on individual donations – then throw in a ban on funding from any other sources. For the reason most of these businesses, unions and wealthy people hand over huge sums is to buy influence, along with baubles and titles – all of which is profoundly anti-democratic.

British politics may be comparatively frugal, with parties spending £32m at the last general election compared with the obscene £1.2bn blown on the last US presidential race; but if funds dried up I suspect the electorate could cope with fewer leaflets, posters and spin doctors. Instead, if parties were made to crowdsource their cash, it might force them to find fresh ways to connect with voters – and the consequent search for donations might even end up reinvigorating British politics instead of scarring it with sleazy dinners.

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