Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Ed Miliband on Party Funding Reform

Credit due to The Independent for providing not one, not two but three articles covering Ed Miliband's proposed reforms to party funding and Labour's electoral structure. This is some of the first concrete proposals we the public have heard from the man (along with the confirmation that Labour is committed to the 50% Income Tax threshold), so its interesting to see what form it takes.

In funding terms, Mr Miliband appears to be arguing for a rather severe cap on donations, somewhere between £50,000 and £500. This would prevent - in theory - large donations from single sources being funnelled into a political party, with all that that implies. However, the offer isn't as generous as it might look: for whilst both Labour and the Conservatives would stand to lose their big donations, Labour appear to be pushing for the subscriptions of union members who pay the political levy to be counted as individual donations - thus leaving one significant Labour-specific revenue stream untouched. Naturally, Labour are also fiercely opposed to any modification so the way that the political levy is raised.

Then there's the obvious problem of what this sort of arrangement would necessitate: state funded political parties i.e. a political levy paid from the taxes of every British citizen. I don't consider that to be a fair alternative and it is unlikely to be popular with the public either. One serious problem is that it leaves control over party funding in the hands of the state, which would be administered by the same two and a half parties that constituted the major parties at present. How does a party qualify for support? What thresholds are set, what form does the support take? All this will be up to the government.

When the problem of large donations comes up, the Independent's citation of Barack Obama's success with micro-donations is telling. First, it doesn't give Obama deserved credit as a truly exceptional political campaigner. The fact that he can do it is not evidence that anyone can, by a long shot. Second, it fails to recognise that Obama managed what he did because of the very, very personal emphasis of US presidential campaigns. Not only does Ed Miliband (and indeed, most UK politicians) lack the personal charisma of Obama, but at least in my view an increasingly personal, presidential style is not something I want to see in British politics. So not only are Obama's micro-donation successes not easily applicable to the British political system, but they could also do great harm to that system if pursued.

Personally, I feel that Mr Miliband's second proposed reform exacerbates the problem the first is intended to solve: party funding. The proposal is that the Labour electoral college will be broken into four parts instead of three, with the new quartile being given to people willing to sign up as a 'supporter' of the party without actually joining.

Both the major parties have been having membership crises in recent times. A recent (and unlikely to be acted upon) set of proposals put forward for the Conservative Party consisted of creating more perks for members. Suggestions included things like passing powers back to branches, organising party AGMs and regional events and even allowing motions to be put forward and debated at party conferences. The entire proposal acknowledged the fact that a significant contributing factor to the decline in party membership has been that increased central stage-management has removed an awful lot of the old reasons to join: the opportunities to influence policy and the strong social networks of the old parties are mostly gone.

Labour appear to have been taken much more by the 'general de-politicisation of our age' approach, and have adopted an approach lifted from the US. Registered supporters will be able to vote on the party leader without having to pay a subscription fee or otherwise get involved. Which rather begs the question of what perks will actually be left to entice people to fork over a subscription fee to Labour in the future? People really need to be inveigled into becoming activists, one enjoyable meeting or outing at a time. The more distant they are from the process, the less likely they are to get involved; and instead of cultivating an active support base, Labour appears to be going down the centralist route of a large phantom membership of 'supporters' and a well-oiled central party machine, without much in the middle. Will Labour respond to the subsequent dearth of activists by demanding state-funded canvassers and phone-bank operators?

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