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Taking is better than receiving

By every standard that can be measured, participation and interest in electoral politics in this country is in precipitous decline. With every year that passes the figures for voter turnout, party membership and financial donations drop a few more points down the graph.

The process is slow but apparently inexorable and (for obvious reasons) it is sending an adenalin-rush of panic coursing through the veins of the political classes:

Democracy needs strong political parties. And for them to be representative and effective, they need to be properly funded. In the past 50 years, parties have seen their income and membership decline dramatically while expectations of what they should do have increased.

Says Leader of the Commons and Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain, who appears to be far less concerned with political bankruptcy than with the very real threat of financial bankruptcy:

In return for public funding, parties should be obliged to direct a certain amount of their work to community organisation and to educational material for voters. We might, for example, borrow the idea from Germany of creating party-linked, publicly funded foundations which could take on this education and policy formation work.

This relates to the third principle: extending public funding will create a more bottom-up style of politics, with political parties better embedded in local communities, for example by financing youth organisers in major towns or population centres, so reaching young people disturbingly turned off politics.

Public funds could be earmarked for salaries to employ general party organisers at national, regional and local level, as happens in Sweden, Germany and other European countries. Public funds could also pay for training and political education schemes and international contacts between parties.

So Mr. Hain is proposing that the funding that he and his colleagues have signally failed to amass through voluntary donation should now be taken by force. In return for this ‘generosity’, civil society will be merged with ‘the party’ to become a single living, breathing, sweating, symbiotic creature of state.

More public funding could help all parties extend their work beyond the world of political activists, creating a politics that serves the people and not just politicians.

Some people will believe that. But then some people will believe anything.

16 comments to Taking is better than receiving

  • We’ve already gone down this road in Australia. Public funding of political parties already occurs here, with no increase in public interest in the political process.

    If your party scores enough votes, they get paid about $1.50 a vote, or something like that.

    There was no cant about the public interest when this was introduced; it’s just a clear rip-off.

  • ernest young

    Typical – we try to tell them they are doing a bad job, – in a nice way of course, by ignoring them. Now they are going to force us, not only to actually listen to their crap, but now we will also have to pay for it.

    This is indeed a most severe punishment….

  • Dan

    This goes way, way beyond the bounds of good government. You can make arguments against this crap, but it’s hard, because you have to start with 1+1=2 and move up from there.

  • Guy Herbert

    What makes you think they believe a word of it? They just expect us to, on the “what I tell you three times is true” principle.

    Barefaced, nonsense from the people who gave you:
    Voter turnout is low: give the vote to 16 year olds to increase interest in politics.
    Universal postal voting is fair and can’t be manipulated: it must be introduced at once to stop the British National Party winning any seats.

    Strong political parties far from being vital to democracy are one of its biggest problems, in Britain at least. They prevent individual representatives from taking a personal view on legislation, and thereby debilitate its proper consideration. The stronger political parties are, the more power is actually in the hands of the executive.

    This is no more than a trade association calling for subsidy and barriers to entry. Established parties will get funding, the more the better established. The voters are merely fodder in this scheme, and a change in their tastes must be insured against.

  • Verity

    Re Blair’s sudden decision to give the vote to 16 yr old kids, this isn’t his own idea. It is part of an EU-wide agenda. They’re pushing it in France. We all know how Tony wags his tail for the EU in the hope of being rewarded with a more important “job” (term used loosely) than Chris Patten’s and Neil Kinnock’s.

    It has nothing to do with voting patterns in the UK or with UK politics. It’s all about Toneeeeeeeeeeeee.

  • Here we have one of the central paradoxes of politics in an age of statism.

    The pols have to maintain the fiction that they rule with the Consent of the Governed, which necessitates at least some voter turnout. Here in the U.S., when the fraction of participating registered voters drops below 50%, they pull out the “voting is your patriotic duty” campaign and fire it up. Apparently, the sense is that if less than half the serfs are participating, the consent isn’t real.

    However, too great a degree of participation threatens the incumbents, because it makes it more difficult and expensive to maintain the coalition of interest groups that got them elected and guarantees their perpetual re-election. So when the figures rise above some threshold, they have to discourage further participation. The most effective tactic in this connection is negative campaigning (truly negative, with lots of mud-slinging and calumny, not just revealing the other guy’s record in office).

    Now, how can freedom weenies exploit this?

  • Ian

    “International contacts between parties,” eh? Well, that’s going to work out pretty damned expensive for us, since I don’t think Ryanair fly to North Korea.

    On the 16-year-olds, yes, if they have to pay tax, they should be allowed to vote. But this has never been a party-political principle: it’s all about ‘inclusion’ for its own sake, so I’d be suspicious of any motives. Personally, if I were dictator, I’d rather ban thick people from voting than ban sixteen-year-olds. (I know some people don’t think sixteen-year-olds, but then what about Harold Pinter?)

    On the BNP, I winced when Jack Straw demanded an inquiry into why so many people voted BNP in Burnley. Really, it’s no more of his business than why the Tories get in wherever. Either we outlaw the BNP or we let them play by the rules of the democratic game. I don’t see any inquiries into why people vote Sinn Fein, after all.

    Still, we could all register ourselves as political parties and see what happens. But we know that there’ll be some rule like “must have one parliamentary seat,” i.e. must already have the resources to be successful.

  • Guy Herbert


    I gather your dictatorship would be the unusual sort (I can only think of Diocletian, though perhaps the MacArthur shogunate counts) where you try to set up a system that works and retire. Most dictators, our beloved Tony included, prefer the people voting to be those who can be most relied upon to continue their reign. The most manageable ones, that is: inexperienced, mis-educated and thick is the ideal combination.

  • toolkien

    I know it’s a tired reference to use the Nazi’s and Hitler at every turn, but I think this applies to the communists of the period as well. Didn’t both the communists and nazi’s use this very approach, or perhaps hijack this sort of process, the building of support from the ground up, block by block, district by district, from the gaulieters on up? In other words, the structure, or the method, was essentially already there, they just took it over, either by persuasion or force. It would concern me more that the political process become so institutionalized.

    The desire for such a system would depend on what type of government is in control, a benign, friendly government (relatively speaking) or hardline government of some sort. But I guess that applies to almost any aspect of government control or invasion. It’s the uses the government tentacle could be used for in the wrong hands.

  • Tedd McHenry


    We have recently gone the same route in Canada, with tax funding of federal political parties. And I agree thatiit’s very hard to explain, in casual conversation, why it’s a bad idea. At the time it was implemeted here, I tried to explain it to quite a few people, with absolutely no success at all. I guess my explanations were inadequate, but when I talked about conflating government with civil society I just got blank stares.


    I’m a little unclear why you say that “consent of the governed” is a fiction in the U.S. I don’t disagree, necessarily, I’m just not sure I’m conceiving of the problem the same way you are. Perhaps you can expand on that — off-blog to me personally, if you don’t think it fits here.

  • John Harrison

    This push for state funding of political parties is down to the fact that Labour’s membership is collapsing and the unions are starting to demand that they get something in return for bailing Labour out.
    It must be really irksome for political parties to have to fundraise – they actually have to please some voters enough to encourage donations. State funding, far from encouraging active participation in politics, will make politicians more remote and insulated from voters. It is part of creating a political elite who can rule, untroubled by the outcomes of elections. Watch out for proportional representation and permanent coalition government next!

  • I feel the “consent of the governed” (COG henceforward) is fictitious because:
    1. COG is uninformed, by design of our political masters; we cannot possibly know what they’re really up to, with whose connivance, or at whose expense;
    2. We are compelled to choose among a pathetically limited set of alternatives in almost all circumstances;
    3. COG is extracted by a process that systematically reinforces the sense that there are no “practical” alternatives to our two majority parties;
    4. Persons elevated to power by this process almost never suffer any penalty for going back on their campaign promises (and of course, never suffer for any damage they do to the country);
    5. Measure after measure has been enacted to secure incumbents in their offices until they decide to retire, no matter how badly they’ve performed;
    6. Most law in the United States is written by unelected, un-chastisable bureaucrats, whom the elected legislators claim, with some justice, to be unable to control.

    I could go on, but surely the point has been made. I would never consent to a rigged system such as the current one; whatever electoral participation I give it is defensive only, and always in a pessimistic spirit. Therefore, I don’t regard my vote (when I vote) or my abstention (when I abstain) as consenting to anything — and I’ll bet you a Kilo Kookaburra to a dried-out cow pat that a lot of people feel the same, or we’d have voter turnouts above 30% in local and state elections.

    Pardon the bilious emission.

  • Verity

    Guy Herbert and Ian – Well, you’re going to get 16 yr olds having the vote whether you like it or not because it’s what the EU wants (for the reasons state by Guy). Tony Blair is doing as he is told.

    It’s interesting that 16 yr olds will not see Tony Blair as he sees his glorious self. They’ll see a skinny, weak-looking man with thinning hair and a hissy accent, who has been PM since they can remember. Kids always want change, not the status quo.

    There’s a myth that chameleons go crazy when placed on tartan. It will be fun watching Toneboy trying to match his colours to 16 yr old aspirations (which will earn their contempt) while pretending to take on the coloration of the huge over-50 population of Britain.

  • Toolkien is right. When I read this:

    “financing youth organisers in major towns or population centres, so reaching young people disturbingly turned off politics”

    I thought immediately of the Hitler Youth. I can’t think of anything more disturbing than political parties trying to brainwash youngsters.

  • Jeremy Marshall

    This measure also smacks as a way to limit free political speach. If I favor a candidate who happens to be in a minor or new political party, I am pretty much precluding from having my vote heard. For the taxing (siezing) power of the state will only go into funding the already entrenched political parties. The only way to counteract such a system is by donating massive amounts to my candidate. But then I would smack into donation limits. So where does that leave me? It was George Wasington who warned us against political factions (parties). Why couldn’t we have heeded his advice?

  • mathgeek

    Still, we could all register ourselves as political parties and see what happens. But we know that there’ll be some rule like “must have one parliamentary seat,” i.e. must already have the resources to be successful.

    According to the Electoral Commission register there are 266 political parties in Great Britain and 36 in Northern Ireland, so it can’t be that hard. A little browsing on the Commission’s website will reveal the rules.

    If you don’t want to set up your own party you could join the MP3 Party, or if that doesn’t take your fancy how about the Common Sense Party, or the Fancy Dress Party. Perhaps the Grumpy Old Men Party would suit some, but it could be argued that they are restricting their powerbase somewhat. Several Residents Associations have their own party but there is no Libertarian Party.