12 October 2007:

Simon Jenkins on Party Politics, in the London Review of Books.

Simon Jenkins believes that political parties are crucial to democracy; democracy as we know it is a product of political clubs that arose in the Eighteenth Century. But today's parties are not what he has in mind. Today's parties are top-down national organizations. Local affiliates, ever fewer in number and less important financially, do what they're told. Increasingly, the national parties turn to the national treasury for support, with (on the European model) winning parties getting a larger share of the state's largesse. This is all wrong, in Mr Jenkins's view.

"A party in receipt of state money loses its incentive to build its base. It reverts to being a club, another Westminster institution crammed with eager young workers looking for a seat, a think-tank job or a lobbying contract. KD Ewing" - whose book Mr Jenkins is purportedly reviewing - "himself seems to accept this, stating that ‘a large number of members or supporters making small donations would provide a secure income base for the parties which would relieve them of the need to seek large donations from wealthy individuals or corporations.’ Yet he does not carry the argument through. If parties operating as now regulated cannot afford large establishments and advertising budgets, that is their business: they should cut their costs. Blair’s response in 1994 to warnings that his modernising ideas would jeopardise union support was to go back to his constituency and recruit 2000 local members. As he said, it can be done."

Mr Jenkins acknowledges, in passing, that there is nothing eternal about "democracy." He cites a Norwegian study, undertaken in 2000, that sought to foresee what democracy might look like at the end of the Twenty-First Century. In order to do this, it acknowledged that modern democracy had, in achieving its Nineteenth-Century goal of curbing top-down authoritarianism, risked putting itself out of business. Modern democracy "had proved expensive and flatulent, and the rolling coalitions brought about by proportional representation bored the electorate." Meanwhile, a "growing consensus" - in Europe, that is - about taxation and welfare worked to reduce policy differences between major parties, which devolved into platforms for beauty contests. Tony Blair, for example, won a series of elections because his successive Tory opponents were manifestly such less attractive men. To a lesser extent, we see the same phenomenon in the United States. It's more meaningful to say that George W Bush defeated John Kerry in 2004 than it is to say that the Republican Party vanquished the Democrats. The simple and lamentable truth is that voters are not politically engaged.

I wish that Mr Jenkins had not skimmed so blithely over the radical Buckley decision of 1976, and Ronald Dworkin's urgent objections to the prospect of "the rule of money," but then Mr Jenkins does not have our problem. Campaign contributions are widely capped in Britain, and transparency is far more prevalent.

The truth is that any system of large corporate and private donations to political parties leaves them, and thus constitutional government, vulnerable to venality, pride, preferment and pecuniary advantage and pollutes the egalitarian purity of one-person-one-vote democracy. Hence the need for successive acts of parliament designed to prevent the sale of honours, to compel transparency of donations and limit campaign spending. Parties are, as Ewing says, part of the ‘informal constitutional infrastructure of the state’ and must be brought more under the benefaction of the state.

In any case, Mr Jenkins does not share Mr Dworkin's pessimism:

Parties should support themselves by their ability to mobilise mass support. Democracy requires them to recruit and retain the largest possible membership at the local level. There is no better token of this membership than the payment of dues. At present, the state already contributes a third of party income through ad hoc grants, while membership subscriptions make up a paltry 13 per cent of Labour’s income and just 6 per cent of the Tories’. For all the massive sums paid in hope of preferment to American presidential candidates, in the 2004 election 10 per cent of all US adults contributed something, and donations under $200 raised $206m.

Mr Jenkins's main idea is that "All moves towards greater state funding of political parties should be resisted," and his final paragraph elegantly spells out the details.

Democracy remains the form of government most likely to deliver peace, stability and prosperity. Its health is therefore of universal concern. A political party that cannot persuade enough people to support its cause should not survive and should certainly not be propped up by the exchequer. Parties must direct their energy not to lobbying government for more cash – as they are furiously doing at present – but to re-engaging with the public. They should do this primarily through invigorating and empowering local government and thus reviving the web of patronage and power on which parties are based. It is this that revived French communal localism under the loi Deferre of 1982, even as central parties atrophied. The health of parties is central to the democratic process, but any hope of revival involves looking downwards to the people, not upwards to the state.

Putting this whirlwind of ideas together for myself, I find that I am rather less hostile to Buckley than I have been ever since I studied the case in law school not long after it was decided. Big money is only a problem to the extent that voters aren't interested enough in the issues, the policies, or even the personalities that have come before them to see through propaganda, whether paid for by plutocrats or labor unions. And if voters are not interested, that's probably because there is nothing to interest them at the local level. Their financial contributions are not seriously solicited, nor is their engagement in the composition of local slates. The town meeting of which Tocqueville thought so much has withered under the glare of television's focus on mighty national organizations. Democracy has lost its local footing, arguably the only footing that means anything. This can be fixed in one way only: by forcing political parties to garner the financial and political support of individual voters at the local level. Government subsidies, which seem in theory to equalize the parties' respective advantages, merely neutralize voter engagement.

In short: what would happen if political candidates were obliged to appeal to voters? They're not at present, and they don't. They stand from time to time on street corners, surrounded by flacks, with all the humility of gang leading bullies. "Vote for me, because I'm going to cream the other guy" - that's more or less the message. How we get from here to there I can only begin to think. Perversely, I think we need some really unpopular and unattractive candidates to start showing up for votes. Rovian candidates, that is, only dis-Roved.

And it has to happen on the streets of New York. Imagine a city that stopped fatalistically shrugging and started mobilizing. Donald Trump might actually seek asylum in Nevada.

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