WE all know, I think, why people with the wherewithal sign big cheques for political parties.
At best, they are supporting a cause close to their hearts. At worst, the cause closest to a donor's heart is his wallet. He wants and expects a return. He is making an investment.
This was plain enough long before Peter Cruddas, the now-former Tory treasurer, was caught advertising the carte de jour for his party's inner circle. After all, David Cameron had already warned of a scandal "waiting to happen". With dinners at £250,000, and access to policy thrown in as an amuse-bouche, he got no prizes for prescience.
It stinks, of course. Those on the inside claim that party leaders know as much. Reportedly, they loathe the business of grovelling to corporate titans and trade union leaders in the perpetual struggle to keep the show on the road. This invites a question: why bother?
The clearest warning available is from the United States. By the time the candidates have dragged themselves through a hellish round of photo-ops, stump speeches, bad meals and fake controversies this November, America will have witnessed – so it is predicted – the first billion-dollar presidential election campaign.
Turn-out will probably not have increased from its usual miserable levels. Voters will not be better informed. The range of political choices will not have increased. Candidates will not, in any serious manner, have been held to account. Ad agencies and TV networks will be counting their money, though.
On both sides of the Atlantic you hear it told that party politics is expensive. It is not often explained why this should be the case. In the 2010 UK General Election, for example, all concerned managed to get through £31.5 million and even this – regulated, with spending limits in place – was regarded as a triumph.
After all, in 2005 all those "messages" cost £42.3 million. Back in 1997, indeed, the Tories managed to blow – given the result, a fair description – £28 million to Labour's £26 million. But the frugality of 2010 is easily explained: Labour spent almost £10 million less than five years previously because donors were in flight. The unions plugged the gap, but with few gongs going the benefactors of the Blair years became thin on the ground.
This was not a bad thing. As Ed Miliband remarked the other day, "We've got to change the way we fund politics and take big money out of politics". Can we therefore expect the Labour leader to send the next big prospective donor packing? David Cameron and Nick Clegg and Alex Salmond will be taking the same vow of political chastity any day now.
Mr Miliband wants to limit individual donations, including union donations, to £5000 annually. For most people, most of the time, this would seem better than reasonable. The Labour leader doesn't want to tinker with the union political levy that supports his party to the tune of £7.6 million, however. The Tories, liable to lose £27 million (from £34 million, on 2010 figures), are for some reason less than keen on the Miliband plan.
So the wrangling resumes. Why shouldn't trade unionists "opt in" for their £3 a year levy rather than opt out? Why, after the Cruddas debacle, can't the Conservatives admit that influence-peddling is the name of the game? Why can't the state fund recognised, legal political parties and slice through the Gordian knot of inherent corruption?
Reformers need to be careful what they wish for. It's not clear that state-dependent parties – in effect, licensed parties – best express the democratic impulse. Even the system in operation in 2010 tended to help those least in need of help. Roughly, you could spend £30,000 per constituency. If you had a candidate in each of 650 seats, the spending limit was £19.5 million. But if you were, say, a nationalist party, or just a party unable to contest every seat in the UK? The noose tightened.
Besides, there is an argument for saying that a democratic movement, of any description, should not be asking permission of the state. Why should an eccentric billionaire have to choose between a charity, a favourite football club, or political activism? If someone wants to spend money buying helicopter rides for a party leader at election time that, surely, is his right?
Mr Cruddas, a man who would be lucky to flog a used car at the moment, probably answered that question. The concept of the universal franchise is simple enough. No vote is supposed to be worth more than any other vote, and no-one should be able to buy a vote. Since most of us can't rustle up 250k for a David Cameron curry night, the breach of principle is obvious.
It is also, in a peculiar way, beside the point. Why do parties require all these millions? Their rotten leaflets and their dire party political broadcasts are subsidised. Opposition parties already get their "Short money". In Labour's case, that's currently just over £5.4 million a year for "parliamentary business", with more than £600,000 allocated to Mr Miliband's office. Yet Labour still depends on £2.5 million from the Unite union.
In pretending to hunt out corruption, we risk institutionalising a corrupt system. Were any of the parties actual mass movements embracing millions of ordinary, dedicated voters the issue of funding would not arise. In reality, these organisations are so moribund they depend on stratagems and big cheques from powerful individuals.
As of last autumn, Labour membership stood at 190,000; the Tories at 177,000; the Lib Dems at 66,000. Membership of the Caravan Club was just under one million. Luckily for all of us, caravanners are not bent on seizing power.
Mr Miliband is mistaken. The point is not simply to cleanse the procedures by which the parties are funded, but to ask why those parties became vulnerable to big money to begin with. The absence of honest political belief, the absence of anything liable to galvanise those holders of a single vote who can't write big cheques, might just have something to do with it.
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