This is as stoggy as a hot cross bun. Read no further. Debate about how political parties should be funded has been rekindled by yet another scandal. The latest involves cash for access and co-treasurer of the Conservative Party, Peter Cruddas, who promptly resigned. Attempts by Labour to score political points are unlikely to impress the vast majority of the electorate. Most of the debate focuses on the motives of donors and the base practices of party fund-raisers. Few if any commentators, let alone voters, give a moment's thought to when, where and how often political parties need money.
Democratic societies need political parties. They are generally the only institutions capable of forming governing bodies at whatever level - national, regional or local government. (There are some worrying departures in the European Union following the Eurozone crisis, but that should not detract from the norm.) If you want power, or a handle on power, or to enable others to exercise power on your behalf, then joining a political party is the way to go. There was a time in the UK when money played a direct part in securing a seat in Parliament. The notorious "Spendthrift election" came in Northamptonshire in 1768, when three earls spent over ₤100,000 each to win a seat. These blessed isles saw the light about politics with the introduction of rules to limit spending on elections at a local ward/constituency level. Though it took over 200 years to introduce limits on national spending in General Elections. Such rules are now bundled with a regulatory body, the Electoral Commission (EC), into law. People at the centre of party politics came to see the legislation enact by Labour in 2000 as the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act as a curse. That includes Labour. It is worth dwelling for a moment on why. The EC took a rather silly view about the role of treasurers in political parties, placing what seemed to be overly onerous requirements even on constituencies accounts. The absence of anyone with any experience of active party membership on the Commission itself didn't help. But it did have some sound ideas, which really irked the professional political class. In its requirements for annual reporting by registered political parties, the EC suggested membership should be included in the annual Statement of Accounts. As one if its first decisions, the Commission embarked on an Inquiry into the funding of political parties. In its recommendations published in December 2004, the EC concluded there was no case for state-funding, but that there were issues for political parties concerning membership and small donations. Given the presumptions of the political class, and that includes Labour's upper echelons, the EC recommendatons were buried. The then Leader of the House of Commons Peter Hain failed to make parliamentary time available. Yes, the same Peter Hain who presided over the bungled exercise to Refound Labour last year, adn who is still in an influential party position as chair of the National Policy Forum.
This is unfinished business. Labour doesn't have to wait for the other political parties. It has an opportunity to reconnect with its core vote and build the Party on the Ground.
This is not a hopeless cause, or one lacking possible traction either with the new general secretary or members of the parliamentary labour party. There is a strong case for looking at the issue of political party funding through the other end of the telescope. You just have to ask: how many Labour members of parliament elected in 2010 won their seats thanks to above average levels of local campaigning activity undertaken by volunteers, with or without professional organisational support? In which seats did Labour win a higher percentage of the vote than the national average?
What the 2010 general election campaign highighted for Labour were different models of local political organisation - an often cited example was Birmingham, Edgbaston where the sitting MP Gisela Stuart secured re-election with a slightly lower share of the vote and a modest 1.3% swing to Conservative from Labour. This compared with a national swing against Labour of 6.2%. Much more deserving of study is the result in Oxford East where sitting MP Andrew Smith was relected with a 6.5% increased share of the vote and a swing TO Labour of 4.2%. Whereas Stuart's victory was MP/organiser campaign led, Smith's was underpinned by an active local party and a local councillor-base/Labour group that had seen off the Liberal Demcrats on the city council. This is not an exact science. But it is a pointer to the future.
Layering community activity, and the way it is organised and accounted for is critical to rebuilding the Party on the Ground, winning future elections and burying the threat to our democratic socialist party from the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. A possible place to start is using the national agreed limits to start building election-cycle budgets and fundraising strategies to match political goals overtime. After the May elections, of course. Someone in your CLP will be filling in the forms for election expenses. Those limits matter, both for accounting and future budgeting. Think about it.