It is admittedly a tricky time to recommend that political parties be funded by the already over-stretched taxpayer. But the Committee on Standards in Public Life is nonetheless right to do so. Only by removing the big money from party donations can the stain of buying, or appearing to buy, political influence be conclusively erased.
Ostensibly, the case for reform is uncontroversial. All the main parties agree that the existing system needs to be reviewed. But enthusiasm quickly evaporates in the face of concrete measures that challenge their own incomes, which all must necessarily do. An unwillingness to compromise on key issues has time and again scuppered attempts at reform. Now the latest proposals, published by Sir Christopher Kelly's committee yesterday, look set to go the same way.
Sir Christopher's recommendations could be more radical. Indeed, we would argue for political activity to be funded entirely by the state. But even the committee's more modest agenda faces resistance from all sides. The Conservatives oppose the plan to cap donations at £10,000, claiming the ceiling should be five times as much. Labour objects to changes to the rules governing its financial relationship with the trade unions. Even the Libe Dems baulk at the idea of the state filling the resulting funding gap, with an estimated cost of £100m per parliament.
In the current climate, emotive arguments that taxpayers' money is better spent on hospitals than on politics are all too easy to make. But short-term observations on the economy cannot be responsibly marshalled to make a case against long-term reforms. Sir Christopher recommends that any new rules come into force after 2015, taking some of the sting out of the burden on the public finances. He also notes that the current situation, with parties relying on large donations from a small number of sources, "cannot be healthy for democracy". He is right.
Sadly, changes can only go ahead with the support of the parties themselves. If narrow self-interest once again stymies reform, it will not only be yet another opportunity missed, but also an indictment of Britain's political culture. So far, the signs are far from encouraging.Reuse content