Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Big Society (2) - Party funding

The UK electorate stands at something over 45m voters. The combined memberships of the three main political parties total below 450,000 - fewer than 1% of the electorate are members of them.

It wasn't always this way. In the middle of the last century Labour had about 1m members and the Conservatives getting on for 2m; every town in the country with three pubs or more had a Conservative Association. The grass roots were long and deep, and gripped tenaciously on independent local democratic governance.

As Central Statism grew from the mid 1970s onwards, so local political engagement - and local democracy - began to die. Both Labour and Tory governments were responsible. Now in 2010, we no longer effectively have mass membership political parties. Instead we have central Metropolitan commercial 'brands', in the hands of a few and largely divorced from the people of the country they seek to govern.

There's a problem, though. They need cash. Their piffling memberships can't provide nearly enough in subscriptions, so they're forced to look to either the very rich or the Trade Unions for income. But they've got a cunning plan; how about using taxpayers' cash, from the 99% of voters who aren't their members, to maintain their incumbent power-sharing deal and exclude new parties from joining the democracy game?

And so in 2007 we had Hayden Phillips' despicable and grubby little report, rank with the foulness of corrupt recommendations that would have kept the big three in power forever with their sticky fists thrust deep into the public coffers.

And there the matter has lain until today. And I always knew it wouldn't go away.

On 8th July Sir Christopher Kelly's Committee on Standards in Public Life held a day of preliminary hearings on party funding, including testimony from Phillips himself. Today, Kelly has published a Press Notice announcing a forthcoming public inquiry into party funding, to start this Autumn and report in the Spring of 2011.

The chance of a truly public inquiry is to be welcomed - particularly if it hears the voices of the 99% of us who aren't members of the one of the big three.

However, this bodes ill for Cameron's proposed Localism Bill, also scheduled for this time. For unless we find a way to re-invigorate local democracy, to decentralise not just the State but the central Party structures that are so entwined with it, then there will continue to be no shift in the balance of power between central and local.

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