After Cruddas’s fit of candour, state funding for political parties is back on the agenda. A senior conservative has supported it on Radio 4, on the grounds that it would remove the appearance of wrong-doing, or words to that effect.
If we are to use state funds to support political activity, I would suggest that we each have some say in how the money is spent. If we decide to spend £10 million supporting the parties, say, then give every voter the power at the ballot box to decide which organization should receive ‘their’ little bit of the money.
Anyone can set up a party or political communications body and can get it on the ballot in a constituency, if they meet a certain threshold of support – they put up candidate in the election, or they secure a given number of signatures, something like that. NGOs and pressure groups would be able to get additional funds for political campaigning, as would trade unions, and eccentrics with a bee in their bonnet about media reform.
There would be no need to put a cap on individual donations, or prevent large donations from the unions, incidentally.
At an election, you vote for a candidate and you also choose who is to get ‘your’ slice of the subsidy. You might want to vote for the candidate of one party and support another with your money. After all, you might vote for the party for all kinds of reasons. The direct allocation of subsidies allows you to send a message to other people about who you want to hear more from, and, perhaps, how you might vote, in an ideal world.
Let’s say I am a reluctant Labour voter who is keen to get rid of the Coalition. But I’ve noticed that there is a weird, deep complicity in British mainstream politics. I vote for Labour in my constituency, but I give ‘my’ bit of subsidy to the Greens. Or I am a reluctant Conservative who worries that the EU is undermining out traditional liberties. I vote Conservative, but give ‘my’ money to UKIP.
As a bonus, the BBC also have a handy metric for when they want to figure out what political balance is, which doesn’t rely on taking an average of the editorial lines of our glorious newspapers.
You could choose to hand the money back to the Treasury. One reason to visit the ballot box. Meanwhile, any money not allocated (because turnout is less than 100% of eligible voters) can be distributed on the basis of previous electoral performance.
You can see why this might not feature prominently in discussions of state funding for political parties. The established parties want to hand out all the money on the basis of votes cast in the previous election. That way electoral performance feeds through into steady national exposure, a sewing of the national agenda by a small number of parties, and their continued domination at the polls.
We need to become more aware of what we want, collectively, and we need to create a political culture that connects with reality and reflects our considered preferences. Direct allocation of state funding along these lines is something that sensible people of all stripes should support.
And yes, I know, we would end up in a situation where nasty types got some money. You do know that happens already, right?