A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The problem with cash in UK politics isn't that there's too much of it

I'm entertained by the comments under the post below suggesting that the problem with UK political funding is high spending by political parties.

They obviously haven't worked for one recently.

Full-time Labour (and I suspect Tory and certainly Lib Dem) officials up to and including the recently resigned General Secretary earn salaries that are derisory compared to the rest of the voluntary sector, let alone their counterparts in trade unions, the public sector and the private sector.

There are hardly any of them - a skeleton crew at national and regional level who work flat out just to keep the most basic functions of a political party going, with a tiny number of field organisers compared to say the 1950s when over half of constituencies had a full-time Agent.

Most staff are appointed on short term contracts in the immediate run-up to an election then peremptorily laid-off immediately afterwards.

It's hardly surprising we get into a mess about basic matters of law and compliance when we have political parties that are under-staffed by people working ridiculous hours for low wages and struggling to do what they perceive to be the day job (organising elections) let alone exercise legal and financial responsibilities they are unlikely to be qualified to deal with.

UK political parties are trying to sustain the campaigning of their US counterparts, with the accountancy and legal requirements of a major corporation, based on the staff complement of a small provincial department store bolted on to a voluntary machine funded more through jumble sales and quiz nights than corporate donations.

Labour's poverty is a standing joke amongst state-funded sister parties. Swedish comrades tell the story of being shown round Labour HQ by Labour Students and saying "this is a very nice youth HQ, almost as big as ours, but where is the party HQ?"

During elections we have ward and constituency spending limits which don't extend to much beyond putting out a couple of leaflets per household during a month-long campaign. If you are lucky you might have enough over to buy some rosettes.

At a national level we don't have commercial TV advertising by political parties at all. In a General Election if you live in a key seat you might see half-a-dozen billboards per party (compared to dozens advertising burgers or perfume).

When was the last time any of the political parties had enough cash to advertise in newspapers or on billboards on a regular basis between elections?

For democracy to be able to fully function, we need political parties with enough staff to train, organise and politically educate their lay members, and enough cash to recruit and proselytise and consult and have a dialogue on an ongoing basis, not just at election time and not just in marginal seats, with the wider electorate.

A debate has now started about where that money should come from. But first of all we all need to kill the myth that there is too much money being spent on politics - i.e. on democracy - in the UK.

19 Comments:

Blogger Doctor Dunc said...

I fear this might just raise the question of what the money is spent on...

Is this your way of saying you won't be applying for the job, Luke?

4:49 pm, December 02, 2007

 
Anonymous tim f said...

I agree with pretty much everything you've written here, Luke.

But wishing we could spend more money won't make us any richer, and more important than total spending is relative spending between parties. For that reason annual local spending limits are a necessity - although as I said in my comment on the other post, it couldn't be much lower than what we're spending now.

A difficult piece of law to put together, granted - but how else do we stop Tory millionaires skewing results in key marginals? It's unrealistic just to hope we'll be able to raise as much cash as them.

5:13 pm, December 02, 2007

 
Blogger el Tom said...

I've just done a short stint as an organiser, but my experience from both the inside and outside backs Luke's argument here very strongly.

That said, if there is a level playing field, the problem becomes one for politics more generally than for any particular party. Then again, I think that the left tends to benefit from 'politics', and a high level of political consciousness.

The problem there is that the left loses out by allowing incentives to cash to be connected to the wealth of certain individuals who have the most to gain by preserving the social status quo; evidently, as they have gained tremendously from it already.

A lot of people have made arguments towards transparency; but perhaps if all donations were anonymous anyway, or at least known only to the electoral commission, we'd be in a better position. Just a thought to float.

5:23 pm, December 02, 2007

 
Blogger E10 Rifle said...

"we need political parties with enough staff to train, organise and politically educate their lay members"

We also need political parties that listen to, and democratically involve, their lay members more than they currently do. Because the more membership numbers decline, the more acute that need for money gets, and problems are exacerbated.

You've articulated a very vanguardist top-down view of what a party's purpose is there Luke.

5:40 pm, December 02, 2007

 
Blogger Kris said...

do we really need the American big-cash dramas transported here?

Being a Labout man, I would have thought you'd want a level playing field. How is that going to happen if the big boys get tobacco, big pharma and alcohol cash to spend on campaigns?

Further, how will politicans maintain their remit to the electorate when in the pocket of a big funder?

Wait for it. I know what you're going to say: The government should pay.

No thanks. I susbidise enough shenanigans without needing to be tapped to foot "derisory" campaign management salaries.

5:49 pm, December 02, 2007

 
Anonymous Ted Harvey said...

This all reads to me like part of the 'new line' that seems to have emerged.

This is 'The Party is in such a mess, with the potential for it to rapidly get even worse. So we must work to distract and move the 'wider debate' onto one about the general funding of all parties in our system, because that would be less directly damaging to us"

That's fine and probably is a piece of sensible realpolitick.

But if in the meantime, the Labour Government, Party and movement continues to tolerate, and even support, the same individuals who have brought it to this sorry pass, and to leave unresolved the (zero) values, mindsets and culture that lie at the root of the problems... then so long will we continue to finding it all reverting to type.

After all, hasn't it already been asserted on this blog, as some sort of mitigation, that Labour brought in the recent legislation on tightening up funding rules...
But then what? The same individuals, mindsets and values as before immediately set about in a sustained campaign of circumnavigating 'their' very own new rules?

5:53 pm, December 02, 2007

 
Anonymous spanner said...

Political Parties do NOT need more money, certainly not from the taxpayer.
If politicians told the truth, did what they said they would do and listen to the electorate they would find it very easy to become elected.

9:41 pm, December 02, 2007

 
Blogger Luke Akehurst said...

That depends if you think political parties should just be alien forces that descend at election time to compete for votes or whether they should be an organic part of society representing sets of interests in it and providing a ladder for ordinary citizens to become involved in civic life and become elected representatives.

My general take is that ordinary voters have more power and more opportunity to run their own communities, and societies are more cohesive, where political parties are strong, well-funded and have a mass-membership i.e. politics is not something done to us by politicians but something we can all - through party activity - actively influence.

10:01 pm, December 02, 2007

 
Anonymous GW said...

Listen to the renk and file ? Mmm

Om one hand you have those party members who despise the BNP for being soft on immigration. I ve one in my own ward.

Then we have your stalker, Susan Press of Hebden Bridge Who may be claim to be a member of the Labour Party but supports the facists of the left.

Or -

"There is no need to bribe or twist, thank God, the British journalist,

For knowing what Sue Press will post, unbribed, there's no occassion to."

GW

11:56 pm, December 02, 2007

 
Blogger Merseymike said...

If the only choice is between state funding and the current debacle, then I would prefer the former, but I think the public would be very hostile.

The point is, surely, that so few people in the UK choose to become members of the political parties. Labour has lost half its membership in the past ten years.

Do other countries rely on large scale donations from rich individuals to fund their parties?

I want a level playing field, but I don't want big money talking.

And unfortunately, the current situation suggests that really, the changes were forced upon the Government and never really welcomed by the party.

12:03 am, December 03, 2007

 
Blogger E10 Rifle said...

"My general take is that ordinary voters have more power and more opportunity to run their own communities, and societies are more cohesive, where political parties are strong, well-funded and have a mass-membership"

But the point is, Luke, is that the sort of policies you consistently espouse - within and without the Labour party - make the wholly desirable outcome you talk about there virtually impossible. You've supported, broadly, the closing down of party democracy, the denunciations of opponents and all the other developments that are going to make what you - and I - want for parties less and less feasible. This isn't about left and right, necessarily, it's about intelligent tactical thinking. And your "massive but passive" view of political parties is a failure.

12:52 am, December 03, 2007

 
Anonymous T_i_B said...

"At a national level we don't have commercial TV advertising by political parties at all. In a General Election if you live in a key seat you might see half-a-dozen billboards per party (compared to dozens advertising burgers or perfume).

When was the last time any of the political parties had enough cash to advertise in newspapers or on billboards on a regular basis between elections?"

Whoever thinks that we actually weant TV adverts for you lot? We have enough saturation coverage at election time as it is thank you.

8:17 am, December 03, 2007

 
Blogger Luke Akehurst said...

I don't want political TV adverts either - I was merely pointing out that their absence here means less cash is spent on political campaigning than in some other countries.

8:24 am, December 03, 2007

 
Blogger Merseymike said...

I agree with e10. If one joins the Labour party, it is now virtually impossible to have any influence. Its even the same if one becomes a councillor - unless you are a cabinet member, the actual influence on policy direction one can have is marginal.

So, a lot of people who have disagreements with the party have left, as they are treated as simply cheerleaders and supporters, not responsible members able to have influence. When they try to organise for a different point of view, they are branded as trouble makers.

People generally don't join things to be passive. I can think of better things to do with my money than actively fund organisations who do things I fundamentally disagree with and give no means of genuine engagement. there is a difference between a democratic party and a supporters club, and I think its the latter model which the party have tried to move towards - but it just hasn't worked.

10:39 am, December 03, 2007

 
Anonymous jdc said...

"Do other countries rely on large scale donations from rich individuals to fund their parties?"

They may not, but the price paid by members is vast. The membership fee for the French Socialist Party is means-tested at 7% of salary. Almost a tithe!

2:18 pm, December 03, 2007

 
Blogger Ravi Gopaul said...

If parties cannot get enough financial support from its members and supporters it deserves to die, sorry.

4:05 pm, December 03, 2007

 
Anonymous spanner said...

I agree with both merseymike and ravi, if political parties want financial support then they must listen and implement the policies that their supporters desire. The money will then start to come in from this support.

6:44 pm, December 03, 2007

 
Blogger Kris said...

I'm with spanner: it's called the free market.

the only other point is you assume all candidates will come from the mainstream parties.

10:58 pm, December 03, 2007

 
Blogger partyfundingwatch said...

I'm surprised by your views Luke. As an insider, and Labour activist, then I'd expect you to understand just how the party dependence on big donors has moved the party from being a party of the people to being a party of big business, and a clone of the Tories.

10:01 am, March 19, 2008

 

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