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Can Ed win support for state funding of political parties?

September 6th, 2013

There has been some alarm this week at the GMB’s early decision to reduce the money they give to Labour by £1M next year in response to Ed Miliband’s proposed changes. Ian Lavery MP is Chair of Labour’s parliamentary group of trade union MPs and has warned “I know other unions will be considering this move, and losing £1m is a major loss already, and not one that can be easily replaced. If we don’t solve this we face significant financial difficulties.”

It’s been suggested that Ed Miliband hadn’t considered the full implications to the relationship between the party and unions after his speech proposing members opt-in. Dan Hodges believes ‘Labour’s MPs have been blindsided because Miliband has stumbled into this process, rather than carefully gaming it out.’  However in the Independent today one of the Labour leader’s outriders argues for greater state funding of political parties, suggesting this is the plan and where the party is clearly heading next.

To be fair there is already a fair degree of state funding of political parties in Britain. ‘Short money’ already assists opposition parties and  parties already benefit from a free mailing at election time and party political broadcast air time. Before the general election the Conservatives received over £4M and a year after it Labour benefited by over £5M in opposition to help with running costs.

You can see why to Denham and Miliband increasing state funding of political parties including to those in government would appeal. There might be some interest in it from Liberal Democrat quarters too, particularly given the precarious nature of their finances now they are in government.

Greater state funding could be controversial at a time when public trust in politicians is so low and demands on the public purse are so high. There will be cuts under a Labour government and to implement these affecting popular services while directing more money for the political parties will lead to a backlash.

You can imagine the UKIP response right now, but the Conservatives with their big backers would also vehemently oppose it – along with much of the press. Similarly Jewish or ethnic minority voters may not be thrilled to find more of their taxes bankroll parties such as the BNP.

I believe there would also be hostility to it from within the Labour Party too. Fundraising events for members are one of the few occasions where they get to be engaged and wooed by the party front bench. Take the rubbery chicken dinners and raffles away and you lose some of that democratic interaction with the grassroots.

Would Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper spend any of their Friday or Saturday evenings hundreds of miles away from their constituencies to speak in a town hall to enthuse party members at their annual CLP dinner if the party received state funding? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

The affiliated unions would also recoil at it, recognising their value and negotiating power with the party would disappear overnight. Len McCluskey has comforted himself with the fact that under Ed Miliband’s current proposals it will mean Labour have to do more to appeal to union members.

Unite has argued ‘if it is to energise Unite members to become affiliate members, saying that voters need a vivid choice for the future of our country, not one that leaves the electorate indifferent.’ This urgency and need simply wouldn’t be there with greater state funding.

At the moment Ed Miliband has been able to just about keep enough of his parliamentary colleagues on side with his initial opt-in proposals, but there are now rumblings.

State funding proposals might ease the worries of the party Treasurer, but they would raise the stakes further for the Labour leader and make his job to winning support for his proposals inside and outside the party that bit harder. There is no guarantee he will succeed.

 

Henry G Manson