Thursday, 26 June 2008

The lies at the heart of Straw's white paper (III)

One of the key issues identified in Hayden Phillips' risible and scrappy little report, upon which Straw relies heavily for the substance of his white paper, is an 'arms race' in party spending. The white paper quotes the Constitutional Affairs Committee from 2006
The Labour Party's national campaign expenditure increased by more than five times in real terms between 1983 and 1997 and the Conservative Party's by more than three times, giving rise to the argument that there was an 'arms race' between the parties ...
And again from the Neill Report of 1997
Without doubt the parties' belief that elections can only be won by the expenditure (mainly on advertising) of vast sums of money has given rise to something of an arms race.
However, Pinto-Duschinsky (P-D) demolishes the 'arms race' as a myth. His research has been widely available, and was doubtless known to Straw before this white paper was published.

National campaign expenditure is only one aspect of party spending that also includes local campaign expenditure, national routine expenditure and local routine expenditure. Measured over the election cycle, party expenditure has only risen by around 1% a year in real terms since the 1960s. What Straw identifies as an 'arms race' is really nothing of the sort; its actually a massive shift in party spending from local to central.

The alienation and marginalisation of local political structures by national parties in particular since the end of the 70s, combined with the slower natural decay of mass-membership parties since their heyday in the 50s and 60s, has led to the crisis in local activism and engagement that I outline in the post below. P-D comments
The parties now lack the infrastructure to provide, either from membership contributions or from volunteer workers, the vital self-sufficiency of constituency campaigning, let alone a subsidy for the ever-expanding central headquarters efforts. The new technologies of media and advertising and electronic communications have added greatly to the centralisation of campaigning.
With the collapse of grass-roots party structures over the past twenty or thirty years the parties have increasingly subvented tax money to compensate. P-D estimates that this is currently worth around £430m a year over the election cycle. Secretarial support is a case in point; in 1969 a secretarial allowance of £500 for each member of Parliament was introduced. This has grown to a staff allowance of £90,505 in 2007. As volunteers and local activists have fallen away, so the State has increasingly picked up the tab. 'Short money' 'Widdicombe money' and 'Cranborne money', political advisors salaried at the public expense, policy development 'grants', salaried councillors, and massively enhanced expenses and allowances for MPs, lords and councillors, including a £10k a year 'incumbency benefit' for MPs now overshadow the value of free TV broadcasts and postage. P-D comments
If we go further down the road of state funding of political parties, we risk exacerbating the long-run trend that is converting parties from popular, democratic institutions into top-down bureaucracies
In other words, the trend that Straw wants to accelerate is the establishment of fully fledged official State parties, the lines between the executive and the civil service and the party structures and the parliamentary parties becoming so blurred and intermingled that we lose the very meaning of our parliamentary democracy. This must be resisted with all our will.

To be continued


Alfred the Ordinary said...

Thanks again for this review. In light of your Pt III, I suppose and additional GBP25million, sounds like a drop in the ocean.

(Drip by small drip, we are slowly being drowned, so slowly that we are not even noticing it.)

Blue Eyes said...

The parties are voluntary organisations, why should they get a penny from the taxpayers? If they are not popular enough to be given money voluntarily perhaps they should collapse their spending?