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July 12, 2013 / politicsbitesize

Who funds our main political parties?

UniteOver the weekend a wedge was forced between the Labour Party and the unions as news of candidate fixing and the allocation of unauthorised membership came to light.  Unite the Union, one of Labour’s biggest donors, has been accused of rigging the selection of the party’s candidate in Falkirk.  It has been suggested that Unite signed up its members to the Labour Party in Falkirk, some without their knowledge, in an effort to get its preferred candidate selected to succeed MP Eric Joyce in 2015.

Under the current system, members of Unite pay an automatic affiliation fee to the Labour Party unless they chose to opt out.  The fee, according to the union’s general secretary Len McCluskey, is worth around £8m a year to the party.  Mr McCluskey denies that people were recruited without knowing about it and says that Unite has worked within the rules in Falkirk.  The union is also supporting candidates in 41 other constituencies across England.

The news left Ed Miliband red-faced at Prime Ministers Questions (PMQs) last week as David Cameron attacked Labour’s reliance upon union donations.  Mr Cameron challenged Mr Miliband on his party’s links with the unions and claimed that, ‘we have a situation in this country where we have got one of our political parties where it has become apparent votes are being bought, people are being signed up without consent’.  The Labour leader’s response was to remind the Prime Minster that he had had, ‘dinners for donors in Downing Street, given a tax cut to his Christmas card list and brought Andy Coulson into the heart of Downing Street’.

In order to try and counteract the negative effects of the news, Ed Miliband passed the issue of rigging candidate selection to the police and pledged to end the automatic affiliation fees.  On Tuesday 9th July he gave a speech at the St Bride’s Foundation in which he outlined his proposal that only fees from union members who have actively opted to join the Labour party would be accepted.  Mr Miliband promised to make politics more ‘open, transparent and trusted’ by creating a ‘modern’ relationship with trade unions, saying he wanted ‘to take action and seize the moment that Falkirk represents’.

The Labour leader wishes to ‘mend… not end’ the long-standing relationship his party has with the unions.  His position isn’t surprising given that the unions are the party’s biggest donors, but the bold move away from automatic membership could mean a shortfall of around £5m a year for Labour.  Mr Miliband admitted that this could cause ‘massive financial implications for the party’, however, he has already stated that a reform of donations to all political parties needs to be examined.

In November 2011 the Committee of Standards in Public Life (CSPL) was formed in an attempt to enable cross-party talks to secure a deal on reforming party funding. A proposed cap on individual donations of £10,000 was floated, but last week Nick Clegg announced in a written ministerial statement that, ‘no agreement between the three parties on beginning party funding reform’ has been reached.

In PMQs on Wednesday 10th July Ed Miliband made the bold claim that individual donations should be capped at only £5,000David Cameron rejected this call and attacked the Labour leader by claiming that the unions, ‘own you, lock stock and block vote’.  Mr Miliband struck back, saying that the Conservatives are ‘owned by a few millionaires at the top of society’ and went on to point out that the Conservative Party had received £24m in donations from hedge funds.

Furthermore, according to James Bloodworth‘s article in Left Foot Forward, ‘248 of the top 1,000 individuals featured on last year’s Sunday Times Rich List have financially supported the Conservative Party since 2001, with donations totalling £83.6m’.   So, now that the Labour Party has been exposed, surely it is necessary for the Conservatives to be more open and transparent when it comes to who funds them?

Perhaps the crux of this dispute is that the money gathered by both sides in this argument is used to fund party politics.  And, in the main, it is party politics that riles the public and makes them disengage with the current system.  How often in interviews do politicians, like petulant children, blame the previous party for the difficulties that they have inherited?

The purpose of politicians, from an idealistic perspective, should be to represent their constituents by providing for them a voice in the Houses of Parliament that expresses their concerns and needs.  Unfortunately, in today’s political arena there seems to be a large proportion of MPs who have come from a privileged background (some have not even lived in the areas that they represent) who consider such a position as a way to further their careers.  Politics shouldn’t just be for those with large amounts of capital and big backers. It should be for people with a purpose: people who wish to change society so that it is as beneficial to all as possible.

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