Steve Richards: Look at Russia, then put aside your cynicism over our decaying and cash-strapped parties

It cannot be a coincidence that Brown is the third PM in succession drowning in sleaze allegations
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The Independent Online

There is a whiff of self-righteous hypocrisy in the current fashionable contempt for political parties in Britain. We kick them around. But where would we be without them?

Take a look at Russia for a possible answer. Once more in that fragile democracy a single, dominant, sprawling party has swept the board in its parliamentary elections. Over the years, other parties have come and gone, but struggled to make an impact. As Orlando Figes writes in this week's New Statesman: "Sixteen years after the collapse of the Soviet regime, there are still no social organisations, no mass based political parties ..."

Figes speaks for many. I have heard and read repeatedly in recent days that democracy in Russia is vulnerable because there are not enough formidable parties spanning the political spectrum, but here in Britain the parties are viewed with a complacent disdain. Voters are outraged at their supine dependence on business leaders and yet are opposed to state funding.

The soccer fans among them are relaxed about allegations of corruption in football and idolise some of those suspected of wrongdoing. At the same time they fume with outraged indignation about the apparently corrupt behaviour of those they elect. We patronise Russia about its inability to form parties. We jeopardise parties in Britain by refusing to treat them properly.

The biggest cheers on BBC Radio 4's Any Questions or BBC1's Question Time are heard when a panellist proclaims that no taxpayer should contribute a penny towards the funds of these useless parties. The panellist and the cheering members of the audience do not say whether they would prefer a dictatorship in which only one party thrives.

The truth is that Britain's two main parties have been decaying for decades. This is not a cause for celebration, but a matter for considerable alarm. As in Russia, Britain suffers from the rise of fleetingly attractive small parties, usually on the extreme right, and simplistic single- issue candidates. Their superficial appeal is a reaction against the bigger lumbering giants, flailing around in a hunt for definition, as well as cash, from the wealthy.

The decay manifests itself in several forms, from low membership to the quality of representation. In the case of Labour, local trade unions and mediocre councillors pave the way for undistinguished candidates to become an MP. All-women shortlists, a necessary innovation in 1997, now block the chances of talented men. For the Conservatives, ageing local parties tend to pick candidates who express the most right-wing views. As a result, on both sides there is no great pool of parliamentary talent.

As far as the funding controversies are concerned, the self-interested jibes rebound on those who make them. In this sense, the parties are responsible for their decline. Labour portrayed the relatively clean Major government as sleazy. Tony Blair says he now regrets making the allegation, but is contrite from the safe perspective of three election victories.

It was not only the overblown allegation that caused problems, but Labour's extreme response. The new government promised to be purer than pure in the world of politics, where evasiveness and lack of candour are required to keep a party or a government together.

Brown has made a similar mistake in making the restoration of trust his main pitch. His evasiveness looks worse than it would have done if he had not made such a commotion. David Cameron is taking similar risks in questioning Brown's integrity. There'll come a time when the Conservatives stumble and the tables will be turned.

Labour is more immediately culpable, having passed laws aimed at transparency in funding, only to be caught out for not being transparent. I have a theory as to why some officials were so bizarrely lax. For years, New Labour regarded some laws as a source for valuable headlines, rather than as practical instruments of change. Quite a few anti-crime laws were passed and never used.

The anti-terrorist legislation rushed through after the Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland was never applied. Blair passed laws banning fox hunting, but fox hunting still takes place. The laws establishing foundation hospitals were unnecessary. The hospitals could have been set up under existing legislation. Similarly, the education policies in the first term could have been enacted without legislation. Hereditary peers were abolished, and yet some still existed.

I wonder whether in such a permissive legislative atmosphere some Labour officials assumed flexibility in the funding laws in the same way that fox hunting was not abolished and hereditary peers still existed.

Perhaps after the current crisis has passed we can move on to an even more transparent set of arrangements, where there is a cap on spending, a limit on donations and more state funding to take the pressure off the hunt for donors, an assignment that no party leader enjoys. But don't hold your breath.

Party funding is a problem around the world, including in countries where there is state funding. There will still be problems in Britain, even if self-interest propels the parties towards a fresh consensus. In the end, parties will thrive or decline on the basis of what we, as a country, decide is our attitude towards them, rather than their funding arrangements.

Uniquely in Britain, we lapse quickly and excitedly into claims of criminality. It cannot be a coincidence that Brown is the third Prime Minister in succession drowning in allegations about sleaze. Major lost in 1997 tormented by sleaze. Blair was subjected to endless questions about whether he was a liar and then became the subject of a police investigation. Now Brown faces questions about his integrity. The ubiquitous Yates of the Yard is investigating once more. Yet step back and analyse the very different personalities of Major, Blair and Brown and they are not obvious criminals. Of course they are guilty of terrible misjudgements, but that is a different matter from criminality.

I wish some of the disillusioned voters had heard the best speech in the recent Queen's Speech debate. The Labour MP Dawn Butler made a rare defence of politics as a vocation. Although she spoke from a partisan perspective, the entire speech should be played in homes around the land. She argued: "Cynicism did not create the welfare state, indifference did not introduce the minimum wage or bring peace to Northern Ireland and apathy did not end debt slavery for the world's poorest people. Politics did all that. This is the difference that politics can make."

As the panellists and audiences on Any Questions toast the decline of political parties in Britain, they should note that the precarious democracy in Russia is the least sinister alternative when cash-strapped parties cease to function properly.