25 March 2007

Mebyon Kernow (MK) is a political party I shall never vote for. I think that generally its policies are naive and unhelpful. However, it should not suffer an injustice in public funding.

The review of party funding now published as Strengthening democracy suggests that taxpayers should fund parties at the rate of fifty pence a year for every vote they got at the last general election for the British parliament – provided they won at least two seats in that election. (There are also other suggestions in the review which do not concern me here. Nor am I arguing here about the public financing of political parties, a view I agree with.)

If we are to use tax money to fund political parties I am sure the review has it right in using votes received as a criterion. This rewards endeavour and success, encourages the new and others trying to break into parliament, and helps those whose popularity has put them there already. It incentivises parties to engage more energetically with people so that they will vote for them. It diminishes to an extent the notion of wasted votes. It strikes me as the fairest way of distributing taxpayers’ money to parties.

However, I think the second criterion of the review – winning two seats – is unfair. It is under this criterion that MK would fail to receive public funding which I think is unfair.

The two-seat criterion merely rewards the presently successful, and does not help those attempting to break into parliament. I think the effect is likely to be to restrict competition to among the present parties in parliament and give them public money to maintain their positions and help keep out other competitors. Yet the case for public finance is that it in our interests in a democracy to have parties compete for votes in terms of their values and policies more than their purses, to have an open market of competing ideas; and that means in 2007 helping parties to be financially able to campaign for their policies. The two-seat criterion further disadvantages parties like MK by giving its opponents already in parliament more and it nothing. It is ludicrously unfair that Labour and the Conservatives, who spent about £18 million each in the last general election, should under the fifty pence suggestion get public money and MK none at all. The review’s two-seat proposals mean that those who vote for MK would find their tax money was used to finance other parties they did not vote for but not MK which they did vote for.

We should encourage the new in politics as we do in industry and commerce: let the clash of ideas in the marketplace of politics help voters decide. But we have to give every party as fair a chance of competing as possible.

The basis of funding should be committed taking part not winning, participation not present success. This votes-only criterion would not encourage people and groups to stand for election merely in order to get money through the taxpayers’ fifty pence. Winning a hundred votes would give you £50 a year for about four years, not enough to cover a lost deposit.

Of course these more open criteria would mean public money for the BNP (about £96 000 a year based on 2005, I think) for example. I do like this but so be it. If people vote for them there simply is not a case against their getting money; parties would not be getting public money on the basis of their values and policies but of their votes.

The two-seat criterion creates an injustice for MK. On the basis of the 2005 general election MK would get about £1800 a year. And indeed it should. I still shan’t vote for it.