In our lively debate yesterday about electoral reform, John Keane, author of ‘The Life and Death of Democracy’ urged the three MPs on the platform to confront what he sees as the biggest challenge to representative democracy: the decline of political parties. Parties, argued Keane, have fewer members, a narrower social base and are often dangerously dependent on those who bankroll them.
Yet, as Chris Huhne argued, parties are vital to the work of our representatives. As an MP he has to vote on all sorts of issues without having the time to go into them in depth. The shared values and trust between him and his colleagues means that he is happy to follow Vince Cable’s advice on economic matters just as Cable is to follow Huhne’s views on home affairs.
Today’s voters are more choosy and more willing to support parties other than the big two (the recent European elections were the first national elections since universal suffrage in which the two major parties had secured less than 50% of the vote). However, as the under whelming performance of the Jury Party (the non party Party) in the European elections showed, people still want to vote for a policy platform and not just for people.
In essence, there are two ways parties as national organisations can now go: either the American route by which they are essentially holding organisations, activated simply to run campaigns, or a genuine attempt to renew the idea of local parties as significant civic organisations. I have always preferred the latter route, and it’s why I admire the Conservatives in their expectation that parliamentary candidates establish local social projects.
But for parties to re-establish their place in the new fabric of modern civil society requires them to be rethought as organisations. Predictably, the problem lies in the interests and attitudes of those at the top. A generation of complacent and self interested cabinet ministers and trade union general secretaries bear the responsibility for the Labour Party now being, arguably, the least socially progressive of the major parties in its community engagement.
Party funding is important in this. We need a funding system which is fair, transparent, and sufficient for parties to engage. Most of all, we must channel money away from negative national campaigning and into grassroots engagement. It is hard to do but far from impossible, especially if parties – as a quid pro quo for greater state funding - are required to be totally transparent in all their spending at every level. But this means the Conservatives supporting reform at a time when they are benefiting from a huge spending gap in every constituency, and it means Labour has to grasp the nettle on union funding.
After reform Labour could continue to receive significant funds from trade unionists, but there are conditions which must be met. Every trade unionist must be clearly informed that they are being opted in to making a donation to the chosen party of their union (and have the easy option of opting out), and the money collected must be simply transferred to the Party and not subject to trade union general secretaries demanding policy concessions as the price of handing over or topping up the funds (as Unison’s Dave Prentice did just this week). Any donation by a union over and above the individual funds transparently collected should be subject to the same donation cap applying to everyone else (say, about £5,000).
The tragedy, as Labour MPs and candidates now struggle against the terrible imbalance between their own and Conservative funds, is that a deal to increase state funding and further reduce overall spending was on the table back in 2006 (agreed in principle with David Cameron). It was an historic opportunity. But because the price for Labour would have been to tackle union funding, those who tried to negotiate found themselves being blocked and briefed against by senior Labour figures.
Party funding reform is a vital goal for progressives and essential to the survival of the Labour Party. In the wake of the MPs expenses scandal it is now even harder to persuade the public to back greater state funding ,but it could be done as part of a genuinely bold package of democratic reform. But in what is becoming a depressingly predictable pattern, Labour's bosses find it hard to put the needs of the long term ahead of immediate fear and self interest.
You may be interested to see a short interview I did with Chris Huhne and Denis MacShane after the event.