Friday, 27 August 2010

Democracy costs money

The Telegraph's is trying to claim that buying tables at a Tory business dinner equates to:

"...controversial fund-raising methods employed by Labour under Tony Blair."

Leaving aside the fact that cash for honours was in a different league entirely with potential criminal activity involved, it does raise the issue of party finances.  Allastair Campbell recently remarked that the political class needs to start standing up for itself. Hardly an easy ask in the post expenses climate but in that spirit here goes.  

Everyone agrees that democratic politics costs money but no one wants to pay for it (at least not to the levels that are needed).  Like most other mass membership organisations party political membership is down.  This means two things - less membership income and less volunteers to do the work.  So a party either cuts back or employs people - the former leads to complaints and a lose of contact that is bad for voting turnout and the latter to increased costs (and to some of the previous as the number of employees hasn't matched the drop in volunteers).

The culture of dontating to political parties is not especially well-developed in the UK (and NI especially) and does not compare with the United States of America (neither are there tax breaks for donations here).  Granted organisations can sometimes update their systems and approaches but it rarely matches what is needed.

This then leads to the public option - parties are funded out of the public purse to some level.  This does happen but it is not something that tests well with the public and the idea of more certainly doesn't.  Also monies for the public's benefit e.g. constituency offices and staffing get lumped in as party political income when it isn't (it is also unfairly lumped in as a politician's personal income).

This leads parties to the interest group route whether that be trade unions, particular causes or the private sector.  With this comes the accusation that the parties are in hoc to their demands and the demand as in the Telegraph piece that such things stop.  This overlooks three checks and balances on that:
  • Freedom of information - More information on how are government works can be accessed so the likelihood of exposure if this is true has grown.
  • Free press - Cash for access, cash for honours, expenses etc were all exposed by the media.  Their is a watchdog and it does bark and bite.
  • Votes - If people view a politician or party to be in hoc to one group to their detriment then they can vote for someone else.
Essentially the tri-partite system of fundraising is a reasonable mix with the first needing more effort put in with the internet a possible means to re-engage volunteers but chopping off any of the three legs is not sensible.

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