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Why socialists oppose state funding of political parties
"Nothing makes a prince so much esteemed as great enterprises and setting a fine example"
TONY BLAIR once said he'd studied Machiavelli's The Prince. As New Labour is again mired in accusations and evidence of sleaze, he seems to have forgotten a key element in that work. With the Metropolitan Police's decision to investigate the sale of peerages, which has been illegal since 1925, setting a fine example is the last thing his government is celebrated for!
The striking feature about the latest scandal of anonymous loans and public donations connected to peerages is that both the Tories and New Labour are under the spotlight. Not only are both parties' reactionary policies almost identical, their fund-raising practices are equally repellent.
New Labour's millionaire clients loaned £14 million, with a similar amount in donations. The trade unions have also donated large sums. As a reward for their generosity the fat cats have grown fatter while trade union members have been consistently attacked, exemplified by Gordon Brown declaring that 100,000 civil service jobs would disappear.
Only one scalp has been claimed so far. Rod Aldridge, chairman of outsourcing firm Capita, stepped down, rejecting the charge that his £1 million loan to Labour resulted in the group being rewarded with lucrative contracts.
It would take a collective suspension of disbelief for people to accept that lavish donations by Blair's millionaire friends had no part in the peerages the likes of Lord Sainsbury received. After all, he has kicked in only £2 million.
Leader in waiting Gordon Brown defends the bung/loan culture, saying "these loans are made normally in good faith by people who want to help the cause they believe in." That begs the question: which cause do the millionaire class find so worthy of support?
THESE EVENTS triggered off a debate about state funding of political parties. The Commons constitutional affairs committee is looking at alternative funding methods for political parties. The usual suspects support the idea: Blunkett says "it's inevitable." John Prescott has shifted from being totally opposed to embracing state funding as being the only way of being "properly accountable."
The European Assembly in a recent debate recognised that: "Citizens are showing growing concern with regard to corruption linked to political parties' gradual loss of independence and the occurrence of improper influence on political decision through financial means."
They recommend the adoption of "common rules against corruption in the funding of political parties and electoral campaigns," and a combination of state funding and strictly controlled donations. Most capitalist commentators echo these sentiments.
All these worthies also lament the disengagement of people from party politics and the electoral process that "is bad for democracy." They argue that funding from supporters is no longer sufficient to fund political parties. The question not answered by these analysts is 'Why?'
Socialists recognise that historically, political parties either flourish or die depending on how effectively they represent their class. In 1889, pressure from the employers for greater productivity produced the great London dock strike that led to the formation of trade unions that hitherto had been mainly the preserve of skilled workers.
This development, known as New Unionism, helped push the TUC and a number of workers' organisations to form the Labour Representation Committee (LRC).
The attack on funds of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, who were successfully sued by the Taff Vale Company for profits lost through strike action, was the impetus for the establishment of a party of workers, founded by workers, that would campaign for parliamentary representation.
This succeeded in breaking working-class support from the Liberals in 1906 when 29 Labour MPs were elected, and the LRC became the Labour Party, which was funded by the trade unions and members' individual contributions.
The Tory Party was big business' main party for a long period. But after the sleaze-ridden Tory party of Thatcher and Major, big business strategists calculated that a tame Labour Party cleansed of its cutting edge would have to suit them, at least for a period of time.
By aping the most naked aspects of Toryism and metamorphosing into an openly neo-liberal party, New Labour has disenfranchised Labour's historic base. Hence the haemorrhaging of membership and finance, loss of support at the last two general elections and at local authority level.
New Labour's problem is how to replace the support and loyalty they once took for granted. The establishment, wishing to maintain the 'integrity' of their political system in ordinary people's eyes, recognise they can't keep entrepreneurial noses out of the pig trough, so advance the notion of state funding which will be seen to render political parties independent.
SUCH A notion is false to the core. In capitalist society those with the wealth will always find ways to support the party that reflects their interests. And working-class people will be horrified at the idea of some of their taxes going to fund big business parties like the Tories, New Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Socialists should resist the call for state funding of political parties. A party which represents the working class will need to depend on the support it receives from that class. The Liverpool city council struggle in the 1980s proved that electoral and financial support will be forthcoming when working people see in action their party meeting their aspirations.
Those trade union leaders who keep breathing life into New Labour's rotting carcass should follow the example of the RMT and FBU unions by withdrawing support from New Labour. Then their members' hard-earned contributions could be redirected to a new workers' party prepared to struggle for a better life for all.
In The Socialist 30 March 2006:
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