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Simon Jenkins in the Times April 9 2006,,176-2125402,00.html

The parties are asking us for a lifeline - well, let them sweat

Not a penny more of public money should be directed at propping up Britain’s political parties. For 20 years they have conspired to reduce public participation in democracy. Now they are paying the inevitable price — depressed membership, reduced income and falling election turnouts. To demand that the taxpayer reward them for this exclusivity with further subsidy is outrageous. The party leaders are even now discussing how to replenish their party coffers from state funds. Since taxpayers are not privy to this conspiracy against the exchequer the only redress may yet be rioting in the streets.

These are the people — the party leaders and their predecessors — who have been selling honours to pay for their burgeoning empires and then lied about it. Tony Blair and David Cameron now have the cheek to tell the public that if it wants them to stop doing what they deny doing it must pay them for it. The effrontery is breathtaking. Let them sweat.

If there is nothing corrupt in the way the parties have been raising money, there is no need to give them more. But if indeed there is now a risk of falling donations because of the honours scandal, the leaders had better make a clean breast of it to Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Yates of Scotland Yard. He is investigating alleged offences under the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Those who claim they have nothing to hide presumably have nothing to fear.

The parties will, of course, say their deepening poverty is nothing to do with honours but reflects a desire on their part to extend a welcoming handshake to a wider public. They want to promote political education, outreach and inclusiveness.

To this the answer is that almost half their gross revenue already comes from the state. At Westminster opposition parties receive £5.5m a year for parliamentary offices, including aides, researchers and spin doctors. Since 2000 a further £2m has been added for “policy development”, whatever that means. MPs get gyms, discounts, freebies and trips galore. They are civil servants and pay no Vat. Their travel is free and their second homes (and in the case of some ministers, third ones) are subsidised. They recently voted themselves pension plans of stupefying generosity.

The parties also get an estimated £80m of free letter post, conference security and television propaganda. Even Sinn Fein gets £584,000 a year in cash for “parliamentary allowances”, despite refusing to turn up or even take the oath of allegiance. The money is described as “an act of goodwill”.

These payments are simply beyond belief, let alone audit. They show what happens when politicians have unrestricted access to public funds. Give them more and the cash will go on focus groups, poster campaigns, photo-calls and helicopters.

Every now and then MPs get together to claim that anything spent on them is “for democracy” and thus by definition value for money. The latest is an incoherent pamphlet from Labour’s Alan Whitehead (for the New Politics Network) claiming that state funding, a euphemism for taxpayers’ money, “is the only way forward if we really do want to see a competitive and healthy party-based polity continue”.

Whitehead’s diagnosis is unimpeachable. Political participation is withering from the ground up. Time was when there was a list of party applicants eager to stand in local council elections. Today there is none. Constituency party memberships have dropped so fast that subscriptions cover just 13% of Labour income and 6% of the Tories’. There are now fewer than 1m members of political parties in Britain, worse than the Church of England, football attendance or visits to Madame Tussauds. As for such backbone jobs as local party agents, there has been a 60% decline since 1970.

As a result the parties have relied ever more on a few big backers: trade unions and tycoons for Labour, businesses and tycoons for the Tories. It is believed that the Conservatives’ 2001 campaign was 80% financed by just two individuals. To those who regard this as unsafe and unsavoury, the parties have only one answer: to raise the money through taxes.

Whitehead piously wants extra money spent generating participation at the local level, although he does not say how. Nor does he explain how the money will not leak into central funds. He nowhere addresses the historical fact that the present collapse in participation is not the result of poverty but its cause. The collapse is the direct consequence of the cult of centralisation, which the nationalisation of parties would merely encourage. One of Cameron’s first measures has been to centralise his candidates’ list, a snub to party democracy of truly Soviet dimensions.

Democratic participation is a seamless web. A dwindling band of people are prepared to come forward voluntarily to take part in local politics, which is “all of politics” for 99% of activists. Recent legislation has rendered such politics ever less attractive by seeking to exclude those with party affiliation from service on the quangos now administering the bulk of the British state.

Britain is unique in having the least number of elected as opposed to appointed governors in Europe: 23,000 MPs and local councillors as against some 90,000 central and local quango-crats. John Prescott wants to shrink this democratic base even further with unitary authorities. At the same time he is seeking to make their job even less interesting by removing discretion over planning and education.

The result is inevitable. The customary reward for voluntary political activity — some share in the government of one’s community — is denied. Leaders from Margaret Thatcher and John Major to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have told even their own party members that they cannot be trusted to tax and run their communities, in effect that they are not wanted. They should pay their subscriptions, lick envelopes and take their bounty in the form of seeing their glorious leader in power. Not surprisingly the public is saying “no thank you”.

Whenever I have covered American elections I have noted the enthusiasm put into “getting out the vote” by activists who know that they will be rewarded. Just as they deliver votes on the strength of their local loyalties so the return will come in responsibility and party patronage. All politics is a bargain. Since the overwhelming bulk of political activity in any democracy is local, such activity is the best indicator of democratic health. Another indicator is the party’s ability to raise funds locally.

At the 2004 presidential election, 10% of American adults contributed financially. Donations under $200 raised $206m. The low percentage of British party funds coming from subscriptions suggests political morbidity, a community that is stumbling blindly in thrall to a metropolitan oligarchy. Further state finance for parties will worsen this trend. It will encourage central introspection and remove any incentive for national politicians, in and out of government, to devolve power to local members. It is like a nation at war deciding to disband its frontline troops and rely on expensive jets and submarines (which is roughly the present government’s policy).

The public remains strongly opposed to the funding of parties by the state or the rich. In last week’s Populus poll for The Times, nearly 80% wanted a limit on individual donations and 53% wanted no state money at all. The furthest that a majority would go was for tax relief on small donations, in which case a remarkable third said that they would subscribe.

The message is clear. There is an indissoluble link between constitutional devolution, local government and political activism. They are part of the same process of political commitment, the only honest way forward to a healthier democracy. If parties cannot persuade the public to play a vigorous part in this national/local partnership, they deserve neither votes nor subsidies.

Either way, the worst response to the collapse in participation is to subsidise its cause: central party gigantism. There should be a low cap on individual donations, total disclosure of institutional gifts and limited tax relief for personal covenants. Parties should cut their cloth accordingly. There should be no question of dunning the taxpayers because politicians have failed to persuade the public that democratic participation is worth its time and money.