The Conservative Party approach to party funding has been sadly one-sided. Their Trade Union Bill is a thinly veiled attempt to damage the political funds of trade unions and thereby diminish financial support for the Labour Party, which has a long and legitimate association with the trade union movement that extends over a century. In tandem with that partisan move, the Tories have also sought to dramatically reduce the “Short Money” available to opposition parties, whilst parallel funding for special advisers has grown. Such a partisan approach to the system of party finance and expenditure is bad for democracy and unsustainable.
What is needed now is a comprehensive and even-handed assessment of how the current regulatory system could be reformed in ways that would strengthen our democracy. Such an assessment needs to look at the core purpose of party funding rules – to establish a level playing field in which the political battle is a battle of ideas and not a race to raise and spend money. It also needs to guarantee that the money flowing into political coffers is clean and without undue influence. The problem with the Conservative approach to reform is that it is one-eyed, targeting Labour’s income but ignoring the far greater sums flowing to the Conservative Party and paying no attention to the problem of excessive spending which can lead to an imbalance in the electoral process.
The time has come to consider a range of reforms that will together produce a fairer and more sustainable system. These should include:
- A comprehensive cap on donations at a suitably low level so as to address big donations across the political spectrum
- A review of existing caps on spending at both the local and national level to ensure a level playing field
- A new approach to the provision of state funding which encourages individual membership of parties
Declan McHugh, former Constitutional Affairs Director at the Labour Party