UK Politics

Analysis: Can there be party funding consensus?

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Image caption New plans to control the funding of political parties are being published later

Back in the heady days of May 2010, when the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats united in government, they set out a detailed set of policy proposals called "the Coalition Agreement".

One paragraph read: "We will... pursue a detailed agreement on limiting donations and reforming party funding in order to remove big money from politics."

After disagreement between the parties in the wake of the cash-for-honours scandal, this all sounded rather encouraging.

A few weeks later, the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life thought the issue worthy of investigation and began an inquiry.

The chairman, Sir Christopher Kelly, admitted that "significant difficulties remain" but he was encouraged to aver that "there is sufficient will to reform the system to give us some hope that it ought to be possible to find a solution".

In the lingua franca of Whitehall, that is gutsy, optimistic stuff. Sir Christopher's cup was not just half full, it was positively brimming over with hope.

Now, after a delay of many months, we have learned the fruits of Sir Christopher's endeavour. He is proposing a £10,000 cap on individual donations to political parties.

He also proposed that union members should be required to decide individually whether or not they want to give money to the Labour Party. Currently they have to opt out if they do not want their cash to end up in Ed Miliband's coffers.

In return for these two measures that would substantially reduce the income of the three largest parties, Sir Christopher is recommending that the public should dig into their own pockets and contribute to the funding of political parties themselves.

The parties with MPs - or representation in the Scottish Parliament or Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies - would get something in the region of £3 for each vote cast in their favour.

'Hard-pressed taxpayers'

At the last general election, about 30 million of us bothered to vote. So the plan would theoretically provide a cool £90m to be distributed among the parties over the course of a five-year parliament. That is quite a lot of cash. The public would also be able to give a large chunk of money to a party without paying tax.

The trouble is that no one appears to agree with this. The Conservative member of the committee, Oliver Heald, has written a dissenting view setting out his opposition to a £10,000 cap. The Tories would prefer £50,000. They would also like union members to have the chance to give part of their fee to parties other than Labour.

The Labour member, Margaret Beckett, has set out her opposition to the union reforms. And the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg - whose party could use a little state funding - has ruled out any early move towards more taxpayer support for parties.

Only last week he told MPs: "It would not be right to ask our hard-pressed taxpayers to pay more to political parties at a time when they are having to deal with so many cuts and savings elsewhere."

And there are many others in government who do not disagree.

Sir Christopher Kelly argues that the public are concerned about party funding, they are suspicious of big donors, and notes that the three largest parties all made manifesto commitments to reform.

And the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all agree that the only way forward is through consensus.

Yet that, for now, is the only thing on which there is consensus. The coalition agreement promised that the government would pursue reform. But it did not promise to achieve it.

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