Posted by Kenneth McDonagh, Dec 3rd 2010
One of the recurrent themes of the recent debates on political reform has been the lack of engagement and/or connection between ordinary citizens and the political system. The public ranges between rage and apathy when it comes to the question of how to influence politics. Calls for electoral reform are criticised because the voters will always get the government they deserve regardless of how you count up the preferences. Calls for institutional reform may be doomed to failure because the same party minions toiling under the same party whips will find themselves in these new institutions, you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Or in social science terms: Garbage in, Garbage out.
Political parties remain the gate keepers of political power and no institutional or other reform is likely to change this fact, nor should it necessarily seek to as parties play a vital role in shaping an otherwise inchoate set of preferences into more coherent sets. However, clearly some step needs to be taken to address the representativeness of political parties and the links between them and citizens. A second aspect of this disconnect is the shift in party funding away from membership dues and fundraising and towards a combination of state funding and corporate donations (including trade unions). What reforms could address both of these issues simultaneously?
One suggestion is as follows. Base party funding on a system comparable to the German Tithe system for collecting revenue for Churches.
Let me explain, citizens would be required to register as a member of a specific registered political party or as an independent. Each citizen would pay a discreet levy via their tax return specifically for the purpose of funding political parties. If the citizen is a member of a party this levy would go directly to the party and would serve as a membership due i.e. the party couldn’t charge any further fee for full membership rights, if they have registered as an independent this levy would go in to a central pool which would be disbursed based on party support.
Outside of this system, only party members will be allowed to contribute to a party and all such donations must be declared on a state database (to be made available online) and capped to a fixed maximum amount to include the amount contributed via the levy. Furthermore, contributions can be made to only one party per year to avoid abuse of the system via switching.
This reform would, I suggest, have a number of effects.
First of all it would encourage citizens to engage with the party system. If people are aware of the direct financial contribution they make to parties, even if they are independents, they are likely to take more interest in what the parties do with this money.
Secondly, most people are not indifferent to the various party organisations and would be likely to opt to have their levy contribute to one specific party. As this would effectively constitute membership they would be included in party mailing lists, activities, be aware of elections for party officers etc. and therefore more likely to become involved.
Thirdly, it would encourage parties to seek members as they have a direct bearing on the ability of the party to fund itself. Legally they will not be allowed to discriminate among different kinds of members, so the way to attract participation would be to give members something to participate in, increasing internal party democracy and participation. This incentive to attract members increases as parties realise they can out do their polling based allocation by attracting a disproportionately large number of members.
Finally as party membership becomes a normal part of everyday life some of the current social and cultural barriers to participation should diminish. Particularly the limiting of ordinary members participation to electioneering activities which in turn should help attract more able people into party politics.
As mentioned above, regardless of what shape political reform takes political parties are almost certain to retain a central role. The success of institutional reform is therefore dependent on the party systems ability to produce representatives capable of making the most of those reformed institutions. The above proposal would go some way to ensuring that this would happen, or at least if it didn’t we’d have no one to blame but ourselves.