Over the past few days it has become apparent that all three of our major political parties are prepared to do almost anything to solicit donations. I find their unprincipled search for funds utterly squalid; the only thing worse would be state funding. Political parties have evolved from groups that produced ideas and occasionally raised money to organisations that raise money and sometimes produce ideas.
First question. What do they need the money for? They have different structures but broadly all three parties run a membership, select and train candidates, manage the media, arrange conferences and develop policies.
Taking it from the top, running a membership organisation is not expensive, and the cost of that is born directly by members. Conferences should be paid for by those who attend. While this might not get them plus sea front hotels it would avoid the need for sponsors. Does society really need party political conferences? Does four days of insipid speeches promising the earth (often in terms that would embarrass a sixth former) or explaining why we have not quite yet reached nirvana actually achieve anything other than hangovers and bed hopping for the party faithful?
Selecting candidates is not rocket science and only needs a few interviews plus an aptitude test to demonstrate that they understand what is and is not a reasonable expense. On the performance of most of the current crop, who are patently not up to the job, scrapping candidate selection is likely to save money and improve politics. Training MPs to handle the media (i.e. not answer questions) is undermining democracy.
Developing policy is an odd one. In the internet age it seems odd that this could not be largely done by a well-run forum with volunteer moderators, just like most other websites. More profoundly, how much more policy do we need? The past century has repeatedly demonstrated that free market capitalism works, socialism does not. Social policy is entirely contingent upon the tax take and the size of the economy. Neither of these are entirely in the hands of politicians – they can screw it up but they can’t make it better. We really don’t need overexcited policy announcements every day, not least because after over 300 years of government we have enough laws to cover the important stuff (and way too many laws covering unimportant stuff). It’s rare that we need a new policy on anything, so why parties waste money on it I don’t know.
So all that infrastructure and cost could be removed, or reduced to a level that is affordable within the subscriptions of members. That leaves media management. The most odious part of this is the use of spin doctors. Their role is to interpret government actions in the most politically favourably way which means that they distort the truth to make their party look better than it is. They are supposed to paid for by the political party that is in government. While their salaries may be, their office costs may not. They add nothing to the quality of government but contribute hugely to the volume of waffle. Typically they are young politicians on the way up the greasy pole clutching their fresh PPE degree. They ain’t cheap, so banning them would save a whole bunch of cost.
That just leaves the political advertising. In UK this is regulated – each party is only allowed a set number of advertisements of set length to be screened at set times. Rather than have the politicians seeking to raise more money for shinier, sweeter advertisements I would simply set a budget limit and require the TV companies to fund that. Same amount for every party with either MP or MEP.
So that’s it. Cost base sorted, no relative damage and possibly better government. Freed of the desperate need to raise funds politicians could simply try to do their job.
As it is, the parties are either near bankrupt or in hoc to their supporters. Lord knows how many have been promised peerages etc. Their main hope is to make their funding so squalid that the state takes it over – effectively providing them with a bail out; albeit one which, unlike the bank bailouts, stands no chance of ever being recovered. Looking at the funding of political parties explains quite a lot about the national debt – the same clowns who can’t run a club can’t run a country.
Of course, the politicians will say that parties are a vital part of the political process. If so it is up to them to prove it and find a way of funding it without resorting to the taxpayer or prostituting themselves.