March 29, 2006

If not loans, then what?

Predictably, the loans for lordships scandal rumbles on… The Electoral Commission says party activities may have been illegal and the police are investigating the matter.

This messy affair highlights the need for a new system of party funding, almost certainly funded by the state. Many argue that the taxpayer won't be willing to fund this sort of thing, but I'd ask two questions:

1) why?
2) couldn't elections become cheaper as a result?

The first one is pretty simple. The exchequer spends small (i.e. less than £20m) on loads of things that we never hear about. I'm sure grasshoppers and genital warts have both received more than that in government funding over the years. And surely a healthy democracy, freed from the over-representation of 'rich people' is worth paying for?

Secondly, if expenditure on elections (and most likely, party's running costs too) comes from the public purse, isn't it far easier to put a cap on spending? For instance, do political parties really require thousands of billboards up and down the country, which serve only to make Mr Saatchi richer? They may not be perfect, but at least Party Political Broadcasts are cheap. Couldn't they be increased and expanded into other media?

Similarly, if public service broadcasters are given more explicit roles in promoting the agendas of the main parties, wouldn't that have a far greater effect? By telling the BBC and ITV that they have to host x amount of debate/analysis on the election issues (i.e. not the personalities), wouldn't the public gain more?

It's possible to see this loans for lordships fiasco as an opportunity, not just for reforming the House of Lords, but also as a way of reforming democracy in this country. It's a shame that we can't adopt a laissez-faire approach to participation, but isn't a bit of activism on this front a good thing?


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