Gerald Warner: Don’t let parties of thieves pick the taxpayer’s pocket

‘IT IS difficult to conceive of a more difficult climate in which to propose any increase in public support for political parties.” Those insightful words came last week from Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

He was, of course, stating the obvious: the dogs in the street know there is no more certain way to foment revolution in Britain than to suggest the appropriation of taxpayers’ money to fund political parties.

Unfortunately, despite delivering himself of this common-sense verdict, Sir Christopher’s committee recommended exactly the suicidal course of action he had just identified: taxpayer subvention of the predatory gangs that call themselves political parties and have brought Britain to its knees over recent decades. Either Sir Christopher loves a challenge for its own sake or he does not get out enough. In the pecking order of British taxpayers’ priorities, funding political parties comes far down the list, after they have contributed to such marginally more popular causes as the Increase Bankers’ Bonuses Campaign and the National Paedophiles’ Association.

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Kelly urged politicians to show courage and avoid a knee-jerk reaction, on the grounds that the public is deeply concerned about corruption in politics. He’s having a laugh, surely? Kelly’s Law runs roughly as follows: if politicians are starved of funds, they will resort to unethical sources of party funding; so we had better mug the taxpayers to keep them on the straight and narrow. This is an all too familiar argument. It holds that if we do not empty our wallets to keep political parties solvent, we shall have only ourselves to blame if they stray.

OK. Here is an alternative scenario. How about telling politicians they are not getting a brass farthing of our hard-earned cash and, if that drives them to dishonest resorts, we shall find them out through rigorous safeguards, jail them and throw away the key? How much credibility would anyone have if he told householders that, unless they gave burglars a share of their silver, it would be their own fault if it were stolen? The one refreshing thing about the Kelly report and previous explorations of political party funding is that they acknowledge the basic premise that politicians are thieves.

Is Kelly being deliberately provocative or has he just lived too long inside the Westminster bubble? “The issue,” he claims, “is too important to be shelved until the next scandal brings it to the fore.” Why should taxpayers’ money be given to people whom Kelly acknowledges are the potential perpetrators of a scandal waiting to happen? The real underlying problem is the increasing reluctance of donors to contribute money to political parties. The issues that are being made much of are large donations by tycoons to the Conservative Party and collective contributions to Labour by trades unions. This is much ado about nothing.

The day is long past when expensive posters could sell Dave or his cronies as credible statesmen to the British electorate. There is nothing wrong with trade union donations to Labour, so long as union members are required to opt in to any political levy. What is totally unacceptable is Kelly’s proposal that there should be taxpayer funding of parties at £3 per vote, amounting to £23m a year. Since the public’s current policy regarding parliamentarians is “one member, one lamppost”, the consequences of imposing such confiscatory fiscal banditry on taxpayers would be, to say the least, inflammatory.

Political parties should be subject to the same regime as businesses. If they do not have enough supporters to keep them solvent then they deserve to go to the wall. Why should the Conservative Party not be exposed to the same market forces as Ravenscraig once was? Following so close on the MPs’ expenses scandal, the parties have had just enough sense of self-preservation to reject the Kelly proposals. That, however, does not mean they have not already got their gobs clamped on the public teat. Opposition parties receive “Short Money”, an invention of Harold Wilson. There are also policy development grants available to them. These public subventions should be ended.

Party politics is not about “public service”; it is about egomaniacs attempting to impose their views on society or, less harmfully, good old-fashioned self-seekers looking for a cushy billet. If they cannot find backers willing to support their mostly unhealthy ambitions, it is in no way the duty of normal people to part with their dwindling cash to support them. Any attempt to impose such a burden on taxpayers, as even the parties seem now implicitly to admit, would provoke a tsunami of resentment.

Not one penny of taxpayers’ money should go to our discredited political parties; the Kelly report should be filed in the waste bin.