Sunday, July 23, 2006

Exposing the Money Game in British Politics

Part of the Carnival of Socialism collection.

Those of us who live in the United Kingdom and take an active interest in politics have not been strangers to the exorbitant amounts spent on US Presidential elections - for the nominating conventions and for the campaigns. In 2004, in the wake of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, contributions from individuals increased dramatically, pushing spending upwards to over double what it was in 2000. Spending was in excess of $717million. The BCR Act removed the previous cap of a $2000 limit for individual contributions - which makes for interesting reading when contributions are broken down; George W. Bush received a whopping 49% of his campaign fund from individuals contributing over $2000 dollars.

None of us are strangers to the claims that as a result of the amount of money being spent 'third party' candidates, such as Ralph Nader and David Cobb, are unable to mount a serious challenge to the existing dichotomy within the USA. Business and wealthy individuals fund the parties that don't campaign on, for example, more rigorous fuel efficiency standards in preference to those parties that do. As a socialist it is my view, naturally enough, that freedom for the flow of capital renders 'democracy' undemocratic; it is for this reason that Marxists refer to democracy as formal-democracy or bourgeois-democracy. Marketing, PR and media spin-doctoring further bias a system already biased by the fact the all the means of mass communication are held by the wealthy and the political elite. Since 'poorer' political parties can ill-afford the shock-and-awe tactics of the Republicans and Democrats it becomes irrelevant whether or not their arguments are the more rational.

I am not American however and it is not of American 'plutocracy' which I write. In the UK, thanks to the inept conniving of certain members of the political establishment, the media has been forced to report on the relationship between money and politics here. I speak of course on the subject of Cash-for-Peerages. Despite the occasional puff pieces written by the sycophantic staff of Dirty Des and the Dirty Digger on behalf of the Labour government, from whom both have exacted concessions, an increasing number of hostile editorials are appearing in the usual places; apart from the major tabloids ( Mail, Sun, Star and Mirror), the Telegraph, the Times and the Express each give the appearance that the sharks are gathering for Election 2009. Yet over both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party hangs the shadow of the events of the past few weeks.

It has been brought into broad daylight that both of the major parties actively court the most wealthy and influential members of British society, both native and foreign, in order to secure the increasing amount of money which they seem to require in order to fight elections. The case of Lord Levy being arrested for his seeming complicity in this, on the part of Labour, and the constant protestations of men like Chai Patel that their reputations are being impugned is just the icing on the cake. Labour and the Conservatives are in massive debt and no doubt these figures have been exacerbated by the pretence that the money given to the respective political parties by various wealthy individuals is a 'loan' and not, as it might have been called in Lloyd-George's day, a bribe. Whilst these figures are infinitesimal compared to the amount being spent in the US, it is still part of a worrying trend.

No one is pretending that these wealthy party donors are being promoted to a House of Lords free from corruption, avarice and brown-nosing - but nevertheless, as has been demonstrated several times this year and last, with regard to education, immigration and ID cards in particular, the Lords still forms an important part of the government. I have no sympathy for any member of that body; it is after all totally unrepresentative and undemocratic, nevertheless, it has been the House of Lords that has held up the ridiculous and civil rights-reducing plans for a unified ID card replete with biometric data that Labour seems intent on pushing through in the face of public opposition. These recent events have shown exactly what part the wealthy property-owning elite play in the shadowy backrooms of our supposedly democratically elected Houses of Parliament. One cannot suppose for a moment that such donors - and those who gave large sums but were not featured on the Queen's Birthday Honours list - do not expect quid pro quo. Philanthropy on the part of the wealthy in politics is a myth.

Yet is there an alternative? Several members of each of the political parties have come forward to demand that the state bear the brunt of party finance, alleviating the need for such hefty donations and, in theory, making politics an fair playing field. Yet the full ramifications of such a move have been ill-explored. In the United States, in 1966 and 1971, laws were passed to this effect. As can be seen several decades later with the refusal of Bush and Kerry to accept Federally mandated 'Matching Funds' and the concomitant spending limits, this has not changed politics in the US significantly. The alternative for Britain would be to ban entirely political contributions from private sources - individuals, corporations, Unions, all of it. Parties could then be funded based on the number of seats in which they were standing candidates or on the basis of their share in the vote at the previous election.

Needless to say the former of these ideas would be outrightly rejected. Parties such as the Socialist Party and coalitions such as RESPECT would immediately seek to stand candidates anywhere they could find a candidate and a couple of supporters to do the legwork - and none of the established political parties could conceivably support such an idea. The alternative would be to fund parties per share in the vote, meaning that party funding would change from year to year. Again, there's no evidence to suggest that this would be effective in curtailing private sector interests in elections; it might simply change the nature of contributions from monetary to media-based. Moreover, it would entrench the status-quo, since automatically, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats would recieve the most money. It might also increase problems related to the West Lothian question. Conceivably the Conservatives would not want Scottish or Welsh votes to count towards Labour and Conservative funding. The Conservatives gained a small majority in English votes at the last election and, in the same manner as David Cameron wants to reduce the ability of Scottish and Welsh MP's to vote on English matters, so too might the Conservatives demand that party funding be based on English votes alone. This might be a step on the road to fracturing the United Kingdom.

One idea that might work is limiting the contributions to members, with a maximum donation amount. In my view, Labour and the Socialist Party-led Campaign for a New Workers Party should be permitted to keep their respective Trade Unions affiliations since contributions are voluntary and also because it is the only organized method by which people in Northern Ireland can contribute to Labour, since Labour does not organize any of the infrastructure associated with party politics in this part of the UK. Moreover, Trade Unions represent millions of working class people - the ordinary voters - and no one is stopping those people not part of a trade union contributing to the other parties, if they so desire.

How likely is any of this? I do not think it is at all likely - far too many industrialists, media barons, venture capitalist, pharmacorporations and other parts of the capitalist elite have an interest in ensuring that their ability to purchase the candidates and governments that they want is not curtailed in any way. British politics may be less overtly commercial than its US counterpart, but squeaky clean it is not. We simply manage to hide it better.

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