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Reform of party-funding - all yours for £13.50

16 Mar 2007 - Bruno Prior

In a move that is almost beyond parody, Sir Hayden Phillips - the man who thinks our political parties would be cheap at £25,000,000 a year - thinks £13.50 is good value to tell us what good value the parties are. That's what a copy of his report costs. 45p a page. Of drivel. That's a report we've already paid for, by the way.

To be fair, though, it's been hard work for him. 12 months to produce a 30-page report was a tough ask. Nor can it have been easy to arrive at the conclusion that the big parties should get lots of money, but had better sit down and sort out the details between themselves.

At least we can be sure that the process will have our best interests at heart. After all, the parties are the best people to decide how much of our money we ought to give them. Who else would appreciate the great contribution they make to our democratic process? And lest we suspect them of self-interest, Sir Hayden has guaranteed their honesty by recommending that their private discussions be subject to "independent oversight". Not that this be debated openly, mind you, because too much openness is a dangerous thing.

Perhaps I should try Sir Hayden's magical technique for discovering best value in my business life. When it comes to negotiating new prices with our suppliers, I shall invite them to get together to work out what is the right amount for us to pay them. Our employees will be instructed to put their heads together to work out how much they should get in this year's pay deal. And I have the advantage that our suppliers and employees know that pushing for too much will lead to unfortunate consequences, like taking less of their product, making some of them unemployed, or simply going out of business. If it works for us consumers of the services of political parties, who could take us for all they like so long as they stick together, it is bound to work for me.

It is impossible to do justice to this report. Every sentence begs to be lampooned. I will have to satisfy myself with just a few:

  • "The issue of how best to finance political parties forced its way up the political agenda in Spring 2006." Oh, yes. Just remind me why that was. Was it to do with the sterling and undervalued jobs that the parties were doing, and a rising sense that we ought to value them more highly? Doesn't sound quite right, so what was it again?
  • "Our mass political parties, which sustained our democracy for most of the twentieth century, now seem to be in decline." Silly me, thinking it was the people - voters, soldiers, and taxpayers - who sustained our democracy. Thank God for the mass political parties in 1914 and 1939. What would we have done without them? Now that their bodies are starting to creak and their faculties aren't what they once were, they deserve a decent pension in their old age. After all, they'd do it for the rest of us, wouldn't they? Oh, hang on...
  • "Fifty years ago one in 11 of the electorate belonged to a political party. Today, that ratio is down to one in 88." Must be doing a good job, then. There is clearly great public enthusiasm for giving money to these deserving folk.
  • "Lower party membership, falling turnout in general elections and falling identification with political parties are not unique to Britain. Indeed, they are common to most advanced democracies." Including many where substantial state-funding seems to have done nothing to stem the tide. But I'm sure we're different.
  • "Parties have become the least trusted of our social institutions." But that's alright, because taking lots of our money to spend on promoting themselves will help to restore our trust.
  • "Our Parliamentary democracy cannot operate effectively without strong and healthy political parties." Yes, how did we govern ourselves before the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties came to our rescue? I mean, look at the eighteenth century, that most unsuccessful period in British history, when the chaos of realigning factions brought our economy to its knees.
  • "The debate about the financing of our political parties is therefore a debate about the health of our democracy and how we can improve it." Doesn't "therefore" usually mean that this sentence follows logically from the previous one? You didn't mention financing the parties in the previous sentence. But that's alright, because every politician knows that the way to solve a problem is to throw money at it, so we all understood, when you said that we need "strong and healthy" parties, that what you meant was "heavily-subsidised" parties. Just like throwing money at the NHS, or education, or the environment has made them "strong and healthy".
  • "Why do I believe there is now a platform for a long-term solution to the financing of our political parties? There are two main reasons. First, I believe the public want change in the existing arrangements." You've been out there speaking to them have you, then? You've heard them begging you to let them pay more money to the parties? It can be awfully hard to hear "the public" sometimes, so are you sure you heard them correctly?
  • "Second, there is an emerging consensus on the way forward if the main parties are prepared to adjust some of their preferred positions in the interest of an agreement." Hold on a minute. I thought this was the change that "the public" wanted. Where did their wants go when it came to negotiating what the actual changes will be? Is that a consensus of politicians and public? Or just the former? I thought so.
  • "It is significant that my Review is in line with the findings of the Constitutional Affairs Committee (CASC), whose unanimous report was published on 19 December 2006 (CASC 2006), and of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL), whose report on the Electoral Commission was published on 18 January 2007 (CSPL 2007)." That would be a committee of politicians and a publicly-funded committee whose membership consists, to a man (or woman), of public servants, including several current or former MPs, would it? Amazing to get such consistency amongst such a disparate group.
  • "Party funding does not suffer from want of analysis or from a shortage of literature." Depends what you mean by "analysis". I like my "analysis" with a strong seasoning of rationality. The subject "does not suffer from want of analysis" like a landfill does not suffer from want of seagulls.
  • "I do not want to add significantly to the weight of reports on the topic." You certainly succeeded there.

I'll leave it there, although we're not even at the end of the first page. But let's just skip to the end (like it's tempting to do with every great work of fiction). In the final chapter, the Electoral Commission, who have been judged to have failed in their duties, are targeted for reform:

  • They will be obliged by "statutory duty to investigate breaches which seem to be systemic or serious." I guess it was only an optional extra before.

  • They will be given "a new, more proportionate range of sanctions to penalise breaches", because "the current system of criminal penalties is all but unusable in any but the most serious cases." So things are to be tightened up by giving the Commission softer penalties they can inflict on wrong-doers, so that the severity of the punishment does not deter them from doing their job. Well, they've been trying it with the police for years, so why not the Electoral Commission too.

  • "The Commission must develop the core expertise needed to launch and run investigations, to determine whether breaches have been committed and to learn lessons for the future. It will no doubt choose to buy in some of this capacity as and when an investigation is launched; it should, at a minimum, have access to forensic accountants, auditors, trained investigators and lawyers." At last! Outsourcing of crime prevention and detection. It had to come. It's bound to offer good value, like every government outsourcing contract. And when Accenture are responsible for keeping MPs' greasy mits out of the cookie jar, they're not going to worry at all about all those government contracts they stand to lose. Now we're ahead of the police (though probably not by much).

  • "At present, the Commission is reluctant to issue advisory opinions on the interpretation of the rules of party and election funding. This is understandable: it might subsequently be asked to rule on the question in doubt." Yup, things will go much better if people just have to guess at the rules.

  • "The Electoral Commission should establish a common standard for party accounts and it should require parties to observe this standard." Don't we have accountancy standards already?

  • "The Commission should go further, supporting the introduction of this standard with training and advice for the parties." Because an investigative body is the most suitable organisation to provide training and advice on how to prepare correct accounts. Far better than the parties employing professional accountants.

  • "To deliver this – and to give advice to local party treasurers on how best to comply with the complex and evolving regulations – I propose that the Commission establish a team of advisers across the country." Oh good, so we won't be limiting the money we waste to just the national parties. Let's spread it about, nice and thick.

  • "It will be necessary for the parties to incur additional costs to comply with the new system. It would be reasonable for them to look to the state for support in meeting those expenses." Can we all have state-funding then, please? I find my accounts quite tricky too.

  • "In Chapter 5 I have recommended that, if a comprehensive settlement on the future of party funding is reached, there should be an increase in public funding of parties. The concomitant of this is that the expenditure of this money by the parties must be subject to public audit." You mean, it may not be audited!? That's making me feel a whole lot better about giving them extra money.

  • "The reforms I am proposing all require the Commission to have a close, informed understanding of the operation of political parties." And when I employ a plumber, I expect him to have a close, informed understanding of the operation of my pipes. I tend to regard that as the fundamental of the job, not an additional requirement.

  • "At present, it is not possible for senior party politicians to serve as Commissioners. This rule was made for understandable reasons when the Commission was first established but I concur with the CSPL’s recommendation that four individuals with “recent experience of politics and the political process” should serve as Electoral Commissioners". WHAT???!!! You're going to improve the oversight of politicians by putting four politicians on the oversight body? Now I know this is a wind-up.

  • "Just as it is appropriate to relax the rules governing Commissioners, so I would amend the rules restricting the Commission from employing staff who have had a recent connection with a party." Well, how else are they four new Commissars to pull the wool over their colleagues' eyes?

  • "To help it make the transition successful, I would recommend that it drops some functions which are tangential to its new purpose. For example, I agree with the CSPL’s recommendation that the Commission should no longer undertake its public engagement work." Because you wouldn't want the public to see what you're upto now, would you?

  • "But I accept that this chapter constitutes a daunting challenge for the Commission and it can only be expected to respond to it successfully if it has the resources needed to renew its regulatory approach and to deliver the services described here. I estimate that it will cost some £3–4 million to make the necessary changes and there will be a continuing cost of £2.2 million a year of running the renewed Commission, over and above its current budget." It says it all. Introduce measures to make their lives easier, outsource some of it, take away some of their responsibilities, and then up the money they get. I hope Sir Hayden's friends in Whitehall bought him several very expensive drinks for that work of art in justifying the provision of more resources for doing less of what you weren't any good at in the first place.I actually don't think most people in Whitehall and Westminster are corrupt or stupid. But sometimes it's bloody hard to keep the faith.

Organisations: Government

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