Monday, 3 December 2007

Funding fundamentals

This, apparently, is the Labour government's biggest crisis. The unfolding details of the murkily declared donations made by David Abrahams to various party high-ups are apparently going to deal Gordon Brown the sort of telling blows from which he will never recover. Funny that, I'd have thought deceiving the country into a senseless conflict in the Middle East in which hundreds of thousands have died might constitute a slightly more grisly lowpoint, but what do I know? I don't live in the Westminster Village.

Let's have some perspective: compared to the sleaze of the Tory years, and to many of the hideous wrong turns on actual social and economic policy of the past 10 years, the past week's shenanigans are small beer. But that doesn't mean they're not serious, and not an indictment of the way the party's higher echelons conduct themselves - they are, and they don't stem from mere individual oversights or misdeeds. They stem directly from the systemic political culture of New Labour, which revolves around the unquestioning, quasi-adolescent worship of rich, powerful people and the downplaying/ignoring of ordinary members' collective concerns.

Yet in picking through the mess and offering possible ways out, we need to be careful what we wish for. And we can always trust the Blairs and Browns of this world to draw the least desirable, least logical conclusions. Yup, Gordy's response to the problem of unaccountable, undeclared donations from private individuals is to crack down on declared donations from accountable, public organisations - trade unions.

You don't have to be much of a conspiracy theorist to see an agenda at work here, both from the ultra-Blairite right of the Labour party and the Tories, to use the current problems to attack the party's most transparent and consistent source of political and financial support. Now there's plenty of criticisms to be made of how the union-Labour link works (chiefly, to my mind, about the lack of accountability of union leaderships towards their own members over how they intervene in Labour politics, granting the party leadership the licence to do what it wants without any real mandate from their members - such as at the party conference democracy-shredding fiasco this year), but union support for Labour cannot be equated with Ecclestone/Abrahams-esque donations, reflecting as it does the aggregated contributions of trade unionists who opt to pay into affiliated political funds. Let's see businesses that back the Tories - or Labour for that mattter - ballot their shareholders in the same way.

Cynics may argue - understandably, to an extent - that the union-Labour link now delivers so little that what's the harm in breaking it alltogether? But let's not be deluded - an ending of the link would enable the party to charge even further rightwards completely unconstrained. Don't think New Labour can't go any further right - they can, and will. It would also be a gift to the Tories, which is why they're braying on the sidelines in support of such a development.

The other, equally ill-advised, option being given an unwelcome airing at present is state funding for political parties - again, in some quarters, because it would weaken the union link. An awful lot of constitutional liberals and policy nerds have embraced this one, but I can think of few more counterproductive and stupid solutions to our current political malaise.

To steal the language of the right for a minute, politics is a marketplace of ideas. If you can't survive in that market you've no God-given right to exist. If political parties can't generate a big enough membership and support base to sustain themselves - because they've become unaccountable and unrepresentative - then they've got something of a nerve to then ask the taxpayers (those very taxpayers who are voting with their feet by not joining, or leaving, political parties) to bail them out. Tax income should fund the machinery of the state, but the parties have to be independent, standing on their own two feet. Give them equal access to mailshots, and broadcast airtime, sure, but state funding would weaken their relationship with their members and, ultimately, their accountability to the wider public. Members of parties get a vote on how they are run (at least in theory); what sort of say would taxpayer-contributors get? It's a form of taxation without representation. State funding perpetuates the idea of politics as a spectator sport, paid for by the public but never played in by them.

Of course, we should acknowledge that the era of high-spending, low-participation politics produces lots of unsquared circles and the age of the Mass Party may be behind us, for now. But the way to restore faith and involvement in political parties and organisations begins at the bottom - more accountability, more inclusive forms of democracy and, we should be honest, less tribalism. But so much of the frenzied discussions of recent days could end in a bad situation being made even worse.

1 comment:

susan said...

excellent post!