The Socialist 30 March 2006 |
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Why socialists oppose state funding of political parties
"Nothing makes a prince so much esteemed as great
enterprises and setting a fine example"
TONY BLAIR once said he'd studied Machiavelli's The Prince. As
New Labour is again mired in accusations and evidence of sleaze, he
seems to have forgotten a key element in that work. With the
Metropolitan Police's decision to investigate the sale of peerages,
which has been illegal since 1925, setting a fine example is the last
thing his government is celebrated for!
The striking feature about the latest scandal of anonymous loans and
public donations connected to peerages is that both the Tories and New
Labour are under the spotlight. Not only are both parties' reactionary
policies almost identical, their fund-raising practices are equally
New Labour's millionaire clients loaned £14 million, with a similar
amount in donations. The trade unions have also donated large sums. As a
reward for their generosity the fat cats have grown fatter while trade
union members have been consistently attacked, exemplified by Gordon
Brown declaring that 100,000 civil service jobs would disappear.
Only one scalp has been claimed so far. Rod Aldridge, chairman of
outsourcing firm Capita, stepped down, rejecting the charge that his £1
million loan to Labour resulted in the group being rewarded with
It would take a collective suspension of disbelief for people to
accept that lavish donations by Blair's millionaire friends had no part
in the peerages the likes of Lord Sainsbury received. After all, he has
kicked in only £2 million.
Leader in waiting Gordon Brown defends the bung/loan culture, saying
"these loans are made normally in good faith by people who want to
help the cause they believe in." That begs the question: which
cause do the millionaire class find so worthy of support?
THESE EVENTS triggered off a debate about state funding of political
parties. The Commons constitutional affairs committee is looking at
alternative funding methods for political parties. The usual suspects
support the idea: Blunkett says "it's inevitable." John
Prescott has shifted from being totally opposed to embracing state
funding as being the only way of being "properly accountable."
The European Assembly in a recent debate recognised that:
"Citizens are showing growing concern with regard to corruption
linked to political parties' gradual loss of independence and the
occurrence of improper influence on political decision through financial
They recommend the adoption of "common rules against corruption
in the funding of political parties and electoral campaigns," and a
combination of state funding and strictly controlled donations. Most
capitalist commentators echo these sentiments.
All these worthies also lament the disengagement of people from party
politics and the electoral process that "is bad for
democracy." They argue that funding from supporters is no longer
sufficient to fund political parties. The question not answered by these
analysts is 'Why?'
Socialists recognise that historically, political parties either
flourish or die depending on how effectively they represent their class.
In 1889, pressure from the employers for greater productivity produced
the great London dock strike that led to the formation of trade unions
that hitherto had been mainly the preserve of skilled workers.
This development, known as New Unionism, helped push the TUC and a
number of workers' organisations to form the Labour Representation
The attack on funds of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants,
who were successfully sued by the Taff Vale Company for profits lost
through strike action, was the impetus for the establishment of a party
of workers, founded by workers, that would campaign for parliamentary
This succeeded in breaking working-class support from the Liberals in
1906 when 29 Labour MPs were elected, and the LRC became the Labour
Party, which was funded by the trade unions and members' individual
The Tory Party was big business' main party for a long period. But
after the sleaze-ridden Tory party of Thatcher and Major, big business
strategists calculated that a tame Labour Party cleansed of its cutting
edge would have to suit them, at least for a period of time.
By aping the most naked aspects of Toryism and metamorphosing into an
openly neo-liberal party, New Labour has disenfranchised Labour's
historic base. Hence the haemorrhaging of membership and finance, loss
of support at the last two general elections and at local authority
New Labour's problem is how to replace the support and loyalty they
once took for granted. The establishment, wishing to maintain the
'integrity' of their political system in ordinary people's eyes,
recognise they can't keep entrepreneurial noses out of the pig trough,
so advance the notion of state funding which will be seen to render
political parties independent.
SUCH A notion is false to the core. In capitalist society those with
the wealth will always find ways to support the party that reflects
their interests. And working-class people will be horrified at the idea
of some of their taxes going to fund big business parties like the
Tories, New Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Socialists should resist the call for state funding of political
parties. A party which represents the working class will need to depend
on the support it receives from that class. The Liverpool city council
struggle in the 1980s proved that electoral and financial support will
be forthcoming when working people see in action their party meeting
Those trade union leaders who keep breathing life into New Labour's
rotting carcass should follow the example of the RMT and FBU unions by
withdrawing support from New Labour. Then their members' hard-earned
contributions could be redirected to a new workers' party prepared to
struggle for a better life for all.