The mess with Labour and the unions makes this the perfect time to let the state fund political parties

It’s easy to state the case against state funding. But if the lack of respect for MPs is what prevents taxpayers stumping up, this lack owes a lot to the present system

Share

Not for the first time, a still, small voice of sanity from John Prescott. Scarcely noticed amid the echoing roars of recrimination during the weekend, over Ed Miliband’s collision with Unite’s leader Len McCluskey, the Labour peer renewed his call for state funding of political parties on the grounds that “whether it is a rich union or a rich businessman, in parties they should not be dictating what they think is the position”.

Prescott understands better than most one of the paradoxes of the years he lived through as Deputy Prime Minister. No Labour leader before or since took less account of the view of union leaders than Tony Blair – probably rather less than Prescott himself would have liked. But at the same time, remarkably little was done during the Blair years to reform the unions’ institutional leverage in the party.

It’s hardly Blair’s doing that Ed Miliband didn’t see earlier that exactly because of the role played by the unions in his own election as leader, he would be under mounting pressure to put in train some of the reforms he is expected to foreshadow in his big speech today. Or that Labour has not found the additional funding – including from business – that it was so adept at attracting during the Blair years.

But Blair did not, as he might have done, change the electoral college system which gives trade union political-levy payers a one-third say in the choice of leader. And even more relevantly, the Labour government failed, when it had the best opportunity, to reform the system of political funding in a way that might have greatly reduced the crisis it faces today.

When, in 2007, Sir Hayden Phillips’ review recommended strict caps on election spending and political donations, coupled with an additional £25m of state funding, the idea was stillborn, partly because of Cabinet opposition, reportedly led by Gordon Brown, to a reduction in union funding.

One of the myths generated by the present row is that any change to the supposedly immutable 113-year old union-party relationship is a precursor to ending it. Until, and including, the election of Michael Foot, MPs alone chose the leader, to take a single example. Another is that the only way to widen the class base of parliamentary candidates is for greater union involvement. Official 2012 statistics on much reduced and increasingly white-collar union membership show that 52 per cent of those in TUC affiliated unions have either a degree or another higher-education qualification. Moreover, the party’s founding fathers could never have envisaged a pace of mergers which would give three big affiliates – including Unite – a near monopoly of big union contributions.

Which is why Miliband is right to be announcing  that individual union members  should be given the choice of whether to  contribute to the Labour Party. None of which is to say that the unions’ historic role in the party has to be abandoned. Rather it’s to question whether their virtual ownership of it is either healthy or, to Labour, electorally beneficial. Which is where state funding comes in. It’s easy to state the case against  – that the taxpayers – still reeling from the MPs’ expenses scandal, and with politicians enjoying their lowest level of respect for generations – will simply not tolerate stumping up through their taxes even the relatively negligible cost of financing elections. Yet this assumes that the lack of respect owes nothing to a present system in which all the parties are dependent on funding from organisations or individuals who not unnaturally expect something in return.

Cash for honours is a relatively minor part of this. Nevertheless it grates; and it’s unlikely that the next batch of peers –including those appointed by the Liberal Democrats – will be completely immune from the criticism that party donations have played a part in the ennoblement of some.

From a Labour point of view, it’s delusional to think that wholesale dependence of union funding does not carry a price beyond the current ferocious media and Tory criticism. If you reject any alteration in the present system, then you are accepting a funding race in which business and corporate donors also have every right to influence the political process.

But the public have a right to expect something in return. And here it may not be too fanciful to think that a widening of the franchise through open primaries, however regulated, may begin to give the wider electorate something back for their money. If, as expected, Miliband floats the idea for primaries today he will have been a late convert, having up until recently believed that they would deprive party members of one of their main reasons for joining the party – the right to choose their candidates. But the local parties will still decide the shortlist; nor will it stop trade union-backed nominations. What it will prevent is the kind of stitch-up that selections, at Falkirk and elsewhere, have threatened to be.

Miliband will seek to seize back the initiative with his reforms. But unless Labour is prepared to start thinking in earnest about – and making the case for – a wholesale reform of party funding, it will be not solve  its longer term problems.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

Government hails latest GDP figures, but there is still room for scepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little