Some of you may recall the utter contempt with which this blog greeted Hayden Phillips' meretricious recommendations on tax-funding of the parties, based on their electoral share in the previous election, thus enshrining and advantaging incumbency and acting as a permanent barrier to political change. I recall a howl of public outrage at the suggestion, and even an opinion poll that demonstrated overwhelming opposition to the proposal. This isn't, of course, the way Hayden Phillips remembers it;
"When I produced my report and negotiated with the parties, public funding wasn't a big bone of contention. I think there would be much more reluctance now even though I still believe it is the right solution. The political party system is essential to democracy. It is a perfectly reasonable thing to provide a stake in the way parties are is funded."He tells the Guardian, proving that he's grown neither in wisdom nor honesty in the intervening years. In contrast the co-Chairman of the Conservative Party Lord Feldman is of the view that:
It is commonly argued that additional state funding for political parties is the solution to dealing with the loss of income resulting from a donations cap. However, it seems highly unlikely that the public would accept handing over significant sums of taxpayers’ money to political parties at a time when the Government is having to make tough decisions and cut public spending. In the aftermath of the expenses scandal, greater state funding of political parties simply risks further undermining the reputation of politics and politicians in the eyes of the voter.
But more importantly, there is a matter of principle here. Political parties should belong to the people, not to the state. General state funding would represent a significant constitutional shift and would risk turning our political parties into little more than public utilities. Furthermore, state funding based on past election results acts as a significant barrier to entry. New parties would find it all but impossible to spring up without access to donor or state funding. That would be significantly detrimental to the democratic process.For Feldman to strike a position so diametrically opposed to Whitehall's strategy of establishing 'tamed' and institutionalised permanent State parties seems brave enough, but consider that the Conservatives alone are capable of surviving a donations cap without additional funding.
It seems Chrisopher Kelly's committee's long overdue report and recommendations on tax funding of the parties will not see the light of day before the party conference season. Once it is released, Nick Clegg will lead cross-party talks. This is a bit like putting Bob Diamond in charge of printing banknotes; the LibDems have seen a flood of members leave since the coalition, their finances are parlous and Clegg has said openly before now that without taxpayer support for his party, it's doomed. And you can bet that 'cross party talks' will include only those parties already represented in Westminster - excluding UKIP and the nascent parties. So whatever Kelly recommends, Clegg will seek to make party capital of it - precisely the outcome wanted by Whitehall.
I can't overstress the importance of the principles at stake here. The issue of Whitehall's establishment of State parties is the battleground over which we must fight to regain democracy in Britain. If the Mandarins win this one, we're irrevocably lost.