Political Promise

Ed’s Donor Woe Highlights Need for Party Funding Reform

In Aidan Quh on January 27, 2011 at 5:21 pm


Aidan Quh proposes that now is the time for reforms to party political funding.

With the news that major Labour donors are threatening to withdraw funding from the Labour party over concerns that the two Ed’s, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, will haul the party back to its working class roots I want to use this opportunity to illustrate why party funding in this country does not work.

For better or worse the Labour party has democratically elected a leader who empathises with working class sentiment and wishes to revive, to some extent, the Labour of old and restore the party faithful to glory. Some of Labour’s biggest bankrollers are getting nervous and fidgety in the wings, worried about how anti-business rhetoric could affect Labour party policy and threatening to pull funding, which could affect Labour’s chances at the ballot box. So now Ed Miliband will have to walk the funding tightrope, balancing precariously over an angry mob of union members on the one side and the Labour fat cats on the other.

Over the years Labour has edged ever closer to the centre of the political spectrum, both to obtain a greater share of the vote but also partly in recognition of the fact that they would struggle to win a general election without the support and cold hard cash of wealthy individuals. If Labour didn’t obtain 60% of their funding from the unions they would, like the Conservatives, be almost wholly dependent on wealthy individual donors and businesses. At long last Labour and Conservative, with nothing to distinguish them, would merge into one giant, heaving, amorphous political entity, spewing forth the same old rhetoric and fighting non-existent ideological battles in favour of one section of society: the rich.

So how did we get to our current system of party funding? The argument went that if a party was popular then they should be able to have an advantage over the opposition parties by being able to raise more money for their campaign. Sounds fair enough. However such a premise ignores the glaring fact of inequalities of wealth. Clearly those parties furthering the ideals of the wealthy, usually through advocating policies involving less tax for the highest earners, will secure more donations and therefore be in a much better position to win the next election, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

The Conservatives have always supported wealthy individuals and big business (don’t sputter, you know it’s true) whilst Labour have supported the working classes. Only with continued union support and a noticeable easing of anti-business rhetoric have Labour managed to balance the scales somewhat, but with donors threatening to walk out over economic policy Labour either needs to pull some additional financial support out of the hat or they’re heading for the doldrums. Traditional Labour, of the kind Ed Miliband is trying to resurrect, cannot win in a system where access to wealth can make or break a party’s fortunes.

Some people have pointed out, quite rightly, that our politicians are not as reliant on political donations as in America – well I don’t look at Mugabe compared to Osama Bin Laden and think, ‘well shucks, he’s not such a bad egg after all’. American democracy is a complete farce, millions of dollars poured into campaigns so elaborate, glitzy and false they’d make Simon Cowell blush. We might chastise authoritarian leaders for buying votes at the ballot but Western politicians indirectly do the same with their shameless political spending sprees. Democracy is a very simple premise: any citizen can stand for election and if their ideals and policies are most popular then they will win the support of the electorate and be elected leader. Ah! But to live in a time when your average Joe actually had a shot in hell of becoming Prime Minister.

Our whole system is inherently flawed and needs a dramatic overhaul to protect our fragile democratic credentials and here’s how: Make all private donations, including union donations to political parties illegal. Instead allocate a certain, low level of state funding to all parties who command a certain share of the vote, say 20%, and make grants available to smaller parties showing promising levels of support at regional and national elections. Not only will this ensure that our politicians are completely unbiased but we put our politicians on an equal platform and let them get down to the rough and tumble of politics the way it’s supposed to be – with informed, innovative policy-making.


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