Monday, April 03, 2006

Chicken and egg

State funding widens the gap between government and governed writes Daniel Hannan in The Telegraph today, in a cogent piece that argues that taxpayers’ cash will guarantee more party sleaze.

To develop his thesis, he points to experience in Europe, where state funding is the norm and has neither bridged the divide between the ruling classes and the people nor cleaned up what Hannan rates as "the dirtiest political systems".

Good as his piece is, however, what Hannan doesn't do is suggest an alternative to state funding, or even offer an analysis of why the political parties in this country have got themselves in such a mess over financing their activities.

Arguably, though, the way out is the more important issue for, if the voters rebel at the thought of doshing out their hard-earned cash to keep the political classes in the luxury they palpably do not deserve, then alternative means of funding have to be found.

Oddly enough, the answer is already there, in the Conservatives' own supposed manifesto, in which they laud the merits of localism. If they look to their own past, they will see that the formidable strength of the Tory electoral fighting machine was in its local constituency associations, which could collect money and turn out the troops to bring in the votes.

But, as with politics in general, over the years we have seen massive centralisation in political parties, with elections and fund-raising being managed from central office, with the local associations being relegated to a bit-part role and the views and skills of local campaigners being largely ignored.

To a very great extent, "Europe" – as they insist on calling the European Union – has played a great part in this. The constituencies are largely Eurosceptic, at odds with their own party hierarchy, to the extent that there are two Conservative parties, inhabiting entirely different planets.

To rely on the constituencies and their funding means getting in touch with your grass roots, asking what people think, listening to them and then acting on what they say. In other words, the political classes have to respond to their own local parties, instead of running their own agendas.

And it is this that the central office control freaks find so difficult to do. For them who want to dictate rather then respond, such reliance is an anathema. It is much easier, therefore, to tap up a few rich men and corporate sources, to enable them to run their own campaigns, sucking up to the Westminster media village (who are just as out of touch as the politicos) and laying down the law to the locals.

Combine that with the inherent and almost insufferable arrogance of that group of people collectively known as "Tory boys", who labour (if I can use that word) under the impression that they have any value to society at all, and who insulate themselves so successfully from the real world that they feel the need to talk only to themselves, and you have a self-referential society that has lost the art of listening and responding.

Thus, although we can take it from Hannan that state funding would widen the gap between government and governed, the real problem is that that gap already exists – it has already been created by the party machines and the current funding crisis is a symptom rather than a cause of the problem.

Within that framework, all state funding would actually do is cement in the evils that already exist – the chicken that was there long before the egg. If the parties do seriously want to narrow the gap, then they have to revert to their own local associations, and rely on ordinary party activists to take up the slack.

But, as that means listening to people and responding to them, that is unlikely to happen.

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