Monday 11 January 2016

UK Politics - the unlevel playing field

During the  "official" period of the election campaign in 2010 the Conservatives spent £16.7m, Labour £8.0m and the Liberal Democrats £4.8m.  As far as I can see figures are not yet available for 2015.

The 2005 and 1997 elections were pretty unusual in that Labour's spending almost matched the Conservatives (with the Liberal Democrats trailing sadly behind ) but the typical ratio for most elections from 1945 until 1997 was that the Conservatives spent twice as much as Labour, with the Liberal/Liberal Democrats peanuts by comparison with either.

These figures are for the "short" election campaign itself.  Presumably expenditure between elections to "maintain the brand, "  pay officials in key marginals, and to assess public opinion (Lord Ashcroft's private polls in key marginals,) demonstrates a similar ratio.

It's interesting to speculate on what the results of  British general elections would be if the parties' spending power were more equal and we had a more balanced press.

This inequality of spending has been a running sore in our democracy for years and various attempts have been made to obtain a fairer system of financing the parties.  Until now all-party agreement has been considered necessary. The Tories scuppered the last attempt by walking out.

The Labour Party depends on the Trade Union movement  for  a large proportion of its funds. Attempts to limit the ability of the Unions to make these contributions have a long history,  based around the need for the individual trade union members to "contract in" or "contract out" of paying that part of their subscription which constituted the political levy.

Given that the Labour Party was created as the political arm of the Trade Unions, the initial assumption was that members would automatically pay the political levy unless they specifically contracted out of it.  In 1927, following the General Strike, the then Conservative government passed a law which required that  the levy should only be collected from those members who actively  contracted in.  The immediate post war Labour government reversed this  in 1946 and  "contracting out" remains the present status quo.

Today the Conservative government has a bill in the House of Lords which, if it eventually becomes law, will restore "contacting in" and, it is estimated, will reduce the income of the Labour Party by some £6m per year.  At the same time the modest state funding of opposition parties, known as "Short Money," will be reduced on the pretext  that it is right that the political parties should share in austerity and so be "all in it together."

Trade Union funding of the Labour Party is by no means perfect.  We Liberals have long argued that individual trade unionist should be allowed to opt for which political party their levy should go.  Not surprisingly, this plea has been ignored.

But in an imperfect world the present Tory action is a piece of blatant bullying: an abuse of the democratic process, a lack of respect for minorities and failure to accept that a healthy democracy requires healthy opposition.  It is also blatantly unfair, in that there is to be no requirement for shareholders to have any say whatsoever in the hefty subventions so many large firms  make to the Conservative Party.

My first lecturer in politics, way back in the 1950s, was a Mr Checkanovski, clearly not a native.  He made much of the importance of the "British sense of fair play" in the operation of our constitution.  At the time I glowed with quiet pride.  Not any more.

Here's hoping that the House of Lords will show that some sense of decency still survives and throw out this  bullying measure.

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