Sometimes it’s the small victories that count. On Wednesday the Electoral Reform Society released polling showing that 77% of the public think big donors have too much influence over our parties. And on the same day, Peers heeded the public by voting to set up a cross-party committee on party funding reform.
The move comes amidst growing concern that the Trade Union Bill is completely one-sided in its approach to the issue. As it stands, the Bill could cut £6m per year from Labour’s income by making union members ‘opt in’ to unions’ political funds (instead of the current ‘opt out’ situation).
This isn’t happening in isolation. So-called ‘Short money’ – public funding given to opposition parties to compensate for the fact that the government has hundreds of SpAds, researchers and press officers at its disposal – is being slashed by 20%, set to take a further £1m per year off Labour’s funding.
While right in principle, party funding can’t be done by the government to the opposition – it needs to be a cross-party endeavour. We’ve seen scandal after scandal, and frankly the public are sick of all parties’ dodgy funding fiascos.
In the 1940s, someone said: ‘It has become a well-established custom that matters affecting the interests of rival parties should not be settled by the imposition of the will of one side over the other’. That someone was Winston Churchill. What was established from then became known as the ‘Churchill convention’. Without broadening the Trade Union Bill, there’s a risk that will completely unravel to the detriment of democracy.
Figures released by the Electoral Commission this week showed that parties spent £39m during the last General Election – up from around £35m in 2010. This is an arms race – and it’s one that nobody can win.
So what happened in the Lords? Peers voted by a substantial margin (327 votes to 234) in favour of Baroness Smith of Basildon’s motion to create a select committee on the party funding elements of the Trade Union Bill – essentially moving away from a one-sided ‘reform’ to one that all parties will have to engage in.
It’s a good move in that it could be the first step towards a lasting settlement on party funding. How our parties are financed needs reforming across the board – not through tit-for-tat partisan attacks: after all, 57% believe that a publicly-funded political system would be fairer than the one we currently have (up from 41% in 2014) so there is widespread backing for change.
As well as setting up this new cross-party committee, Peers advocated ‘urgent new legislation to balance those provisions [in the Trade Union Bill] with the other recommendations made in the [Committee on Standards in Public Life’s 2011] Report’, with the new committee set to report by 29 February.
So this House of Lords vote was a step in the right direction – and we hope parties engage constructively to sort out the mess that is Britain’s party funding system.
Let’s clean up the parties’ big donor culture once and for all.