Comment: Taxpayer funding of political parties would damage our democracy

Taxpayers got a terrible deal from bailing out the banks and they would get another bad one for bailing out politicians.

By Robert Oxley

The allegation that Tory donors were able to effectively buy access to the prime minister have intensified the debate over how we fund politics in Britain. Following a week of political scandal it was hardly surprising to see the collective poll ratings of the party leaders fall to their lowest levels ever recorded.

The three major parties are due to meet after Easter and all of them have skeletons in the cupboard that will dog negotiations. Despite the spin from those who seek to exploit the crisis of faith in our politics, asking taxpayers to pay for political parties is not the answer to questions about how British politics is funded.

All three major parties have taken money from wealthy individuals, companies and trusts, and all three have faced questions over the influence and propriety of those donations. This is not the first time the Conservatives have been accused of being too close to wealthy businessman while the last Labour government faced a police investigation over the cash for peerages scandal, and the Liberal Democrats have yet to pay back the money they received from convicted fraudster Michael Brown.

As the party representatives debate issues like donation caps, the role of trade unions, and transparency, there will be some arguing that "taxpayers should pay" to clean up politics. This would be the worst option of all possible outcomes and would seriously damage democracy in the UK.

It is unacceptable to ask taxpayers to pick up an even bigger bill than they already do for politicians and their party machines. Taxpayers already write a substantial cheque to politicians for so-called 'short money', a fund for political advisors who are provide the political counterbalance to the civil service for those in opposition.

Come election time taxpayers also pick up the cost of direct political mailings. There will always be a cost for democracy but a scenario where politicians ask taxpayers to tighten their own belts while demanding cash for party funding would damage the relationship between the two irreparably.

Increased taxpayer funding of political parties would accentuate the disconnect between party leaders and their grassroots. All of the party leaderships are faced with questions about whether they are in touch with their membership and how wide an activist base they have cultivated. Parties should look to how they garner support and assistance from the grassroots, not become even more inward looking and expect a bailout from taxpayers.

Westminster is already full of enough professional politicians without us encouraging them to become more reliant on us for their funding as well

Proposed will also create scenarios where taxpayers financially support parties that they themselves cannot stomach. If the report by the committee on standards in public life into political party finance was adopted then Conservative voters would find themselves funding Labour candidates and vice versa. Taxpayers may also end up funding manifestos they find abhorrent. If the Kelly report that that recommended a £1.50 per vote scheme had been adopted, the European Election results in 2009 alone would have handed the BNP over £1.4m of taxpayers’ money. Is this a price worth paying because our politicians fail to embrace transparency and openness in their dealing with donors?

Political parties shouldn't be allowed to take the easy option and put the burden of paying for politics solely on the shoulders of taxpayers who have no choice in the matter.

Taxpayers got a terrible deal from bailing out the banks and they would get another bad one for bailing out politicians. Political leaders have to work twice as hard on the door step and at constituency fundraisers, not half as much.

When MPs' expenses were hitting the headlines we were told that sunlight was the best disinfectant, and the same applies to party funding. A clear list of donors and meetings combined with a strong and independent media will strengthen our democracy far more than any miserable little taxpayer funded compromise made behind closed doors will. Yes, there are strong arguments for reforms such as a donation cap or an opt-in trade union political levy, but don't let people pretend that greater taxpayer funding of political parties will do anything other than harm our democracy.

Robert Oxley is campaign manager for the TaxPayers' Alliance.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.