George Eustice: Party funding is unlikely to change

The reform of party funding comes on to the agenda periodically, but always proves hard to deliver.

George Eustice: Party funding is unlikely to change
George Eustice: Party funding is unlikely to change

Political parties are an under-appreciated component of a functional democracy. They galvanise support for change. Volunteers deliver millions of leaflets. Without a party system, no-one could get anything done and election promises would be meaningless. Most government policy is initially drafted in opposition by a handful of talented twenty-something researchers, employed by a party, on low pay. The parties already run on a shoestring.

The last attempt to reform party funding was initiated by the Conservatives six years ago and came close to achieving a breakthrough. The proposal was to cap all donations to parties at £50,000 to remove the perception that large donors, whether trade unions or individuals, might be trying to exercise undue influence. There would then be a system of match funding from the state. It would have been a voluntary system into which parties could opt, so it would not have stopped a minority party funded by a wealthy individual running for election to shake up the system.

But the main stumbling block to reform has always been the reluctance of the Labour Party to give up the huge donations it receives from trade unions. In the last negotiations, Tony Blair accepted that a cap should apply, but Gordon Brown did not, so no agreement was possible. Will it be different this time around?

In the current environment, there is no public enthusiasm for state funding of political parties along Australian lines. But a cap on donations without alternative support risks weakening political parties and undermining democracy. One idea might be to introduce a cap, while bolstering support in ways that do not involve direct payments to parties by taxpayers. One could increase the number of election addresses that the Post Office delivers for free or expand and reform the system of election broadcasts, so that parties could have shorter, but more frequent, political broadcasts to get their message across. However, don't hold your breath. Reform will probably remain elusive.

George Eustice is Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth and a former press secretary to David Cameron

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