The “cash for access” row in the UK has raised the issue again of how political parties are funded. Should the cash come from party members, donors or the State?
The British experience is small beer compared with the obscenity of US political campaigning. In a nation with high unemployment countless millions of dollars are being spent in the primary process just to select the Republican nominee to challenge Obama. Then more countless millions will be spent as they battle it out to be president. Needless to say the majority of the cash comes from business and pressure group donors and rather than promoting policies it is all about character assassination. The US would have us believe it is the political system at its finest: sorry it is sewer politics and it stinks.
The main need for funding comes at election time but just to run a political office even with volunteers costs money. The Gibraltar parties are largely on a par with constituency parties in the UK. The Conservatives and Labour used to have a profession party agent running the local office perhaps with a paid secretary. For many constituencies that scenario is ancient history and now it is down to the activists. Yet rent, heating, lighting, office facilities and telephone – internet still add up to several hundred pounds a month minimum.
Ideally a political party should be funded by the many rather than the few. However a grass roots party may pay in to keep the operation going but if their leader is either in government or on the road to power then all sorts of major donors can suddenly surface hoping a large cash sum can buy them influence. In that scenario the activists are pushed aside with a people’s party bowing instead to the people with big pockets.
The positive point about Gibraltar political parties of all persuasions is that the politicians whether in or out of government have their professions outside of Parliament and their feet firmly on Main Street. This is in contrast to the UK where Cameron, Osborne, Miliband and Balls to name just four are professional politicians who have never had to earn an honest crust in the real world.
Gibraltar’s politicians get their ears bent by supporters and opponents alike as they shop, go to church, fill up the car with petrol, eat in a restaurant or stop for a coffee. There is no hiding place and it makes for healthy politics.
However leading British politicians live in a bubble completely separated from the people they represent: they are far more open to listening to somebody passing them a fat cheque with one view rather than a queue of activists clutching a fiver each with numerous opinions.
In some ways State funding does not help solve the problem. Certainly it should remove the millionaire donors but if the State is funding the party the professional politician has even less need for supporters and certainly no need to listen to their views.
I am also unclear how this State funding would work. Would it apply to all parties or elected parties? If I set up as a political party tomorrow would I suddenly be eligible for some dosh? Presumably not but would it be fair for the GSLP, Liberals and GSD to be funded and not the PDP because it has no MPs? Would the Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, Greens and various nationalist parties in the British Parliament receive State funding but not the Monster Raving Looney Party and far from funny BNP?
Running a political party costs money and hence democracy costs money. Yet one party having more money than another and therefore better able to run a campaign is not democratic either. A party backed by a thousand activists each paying in a pound is easily out gunned by another party with a single donor handing over a million. It is a problem that needs to be solved but are politicians the people to do it?