Tis better to remain silent and be thought a fool than be Jack Straw and remove all doubt…

I know that speeches to party conferences are traditionally long on rhetoric and short on detail but reading through some of the speeches published on the Labour website from this year’s conference I couldn’t help but notice this one, from Jack Straw, which stands as a genuine masterpiece of the art of speaking for ages and saying absolutely nothing of substance or consequence.

Am I, perhaps, being a little uncharitable here. Maybe, maybe not, but when I see a report of a ministerial speech which carries the headline "Straw sets out plans for reform of Lords and party funding" my expectation is that it will show some evidence that there are actually plans in place for those reforms…

…tell you what, just read the speech (and my own annotations) and decide for yourself whether I have a point here.

Straw sets out plans for reform of Lords and party funding

Conference, we were bottom of the G7 economic league in 1997 – now we are second; we have job creation rates which the likes of France and Germany would die for; record investment and record results in education and health; 800,000 children out of poverty, a fairer and more equal society through the minimum wage, new trade union rights, the Lawrence inquiry, race relations act, the Human Rights Act, and much more.

We have doubled our international aid programme and are leading the world in tackling climate change.

We are, on any measure, one of the most successful peacetime governments of the last 100 years.

Okay, so that the obligatory opening panegyric out of the way, now what’s Jack actually got to say for himself.

We’ve done all this – more, not less, than we promised – and yet the state of our party and the overall health of our democracy do not reflect these tangible achievements.  Indeed, the reverse is true.

Our membership is down, so is that of all parties; a halving in 25 years. Spending has trebled; and turnouts are dramatically down. 

*Cough* Errrm, Jack? Don’t you mean a halving in ten years when it comes to our own party?

I’m sure you know the figures – our could at least as Hazel for them – but just to remind you Labour Party membership stood at around 407.000 in 1997; our last reported official membership figure was 198,026, this being the figure reported to the Electoral Commission at the end of 2005 and looks to have fallen even further since, if the number of ballot papers issued for the recent NEC elections (178,889) is anything to go by.

There are many things we have to do to put all this right. We need fresh policies for sure; but politics is as much about heart as it is about the head. Decisions about which party to support are not made through irrational flights of fancy, but nor are they just a matter of arid calculus.

Okay, yes, I’ll give you that…

For too many, politics is a turnoff, something to look down upon, apparently not relevant to their lives.

That too…

But none of the things which have changed Britain in the last 100 years could have happened without the work of the political parties.

Hang on a second, Jack. We seem to be skipping on a bit here.

You’ve started out be identifying the problem – many people find politics a turn-off and fail to see how its relevant to their lives – which is fine. No problem with that. After all, if you’re going to tackle a problem you should at least have some idea of what the problem is before you start…

…but having identified the problem you’ve then pushed straight on to eulogising the work of political parties over the last 100 years without any sense of how this might be relevant to issue of declining political engagement amongst the wider population.

Sorry Jack, but the immediate impression you’re creating here is one of ‘ we know there’s a problem but we haven’t got the foggiest idea what to do about it?

Political parties are the very lifeblood of our democracy.

Well Jack would say that, wouldn’t he – after all his job depends on it, even though that’s really a rather arguable point.

Any number of things have been referred to over the years as the ‘lifeblood of democracy’. Lyndon Baines Johnson considered voting rights to be the lifeblood of democracy while Thomas Jefferson thought it was education. In Edward Kennedy’s opinion…

Integrity is the lifeblood of democracy. Deceit is a poison in its veins.

…while Rosa Luxemburg’s, amongst others, identified dissent and the freedom to voice dissenting opinions as occupying that role…

Freedom only for the members of the government, only for the members of the Party — though they are quite numerous — is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters.

Elsewhere, one can find the epithet ‘the lifeblood of democracy’ applied variously to information, to freedom of expression (and particularly to freedom of the press), to justice, to competition for power, to dialogue, to participation and deliberation, to the processes and procedures of democracy. Even the Internet has been referred to in this fashion.

As far as anything being the ‘lifeblood of democracy’, the most one can say with any real certainty is that its whatever an individual wants it to be, according to their own particular preference, prejudices and personal/political agenda.

Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m starting to get the distinct impression here that whatever the actual problems are that are turning people off politics and participation and engagement in the democratic process, you view is that political parties are the answer, irrespective of whether their is any actual evidence to support such a view. And that, in turn, seems to suggest that far from genuinely seeking to address the questions raised by the decline in party membership across all the main political parties and, in particular, the overall fall in political /democratic engagement in the wider electorate, what’s actually emerging here is little more than an exercise in self-justification in order to preserve as much of the present status quo as possible.

All very conservative (small ‘c’) is seems and hardly in keeping with the party’s aspirations towards being ‘radical’ and ‘progressive’.

I know that political parties are often adversely compared to single issue pressure groups.

People are understandably drawn to such groups.

They are more accessible and their messages are so much simpler.

Well, quite… but what of it?

But it is only political parties which can make the essential choices between tax and spend, between security and liberty and between the market and the state.

Really? So, for instance, a hypothetical parliament consisting of 640 or so rational adults of independent mind and sound, rational judgement, would be incapable of debating issues such as the choice between tax and spend, security and liberty and the market and the state on the basis of a simple democratic vote?

Membership of political parties is not only essential to democracy, but noble, while giving money to those parties is not dodgy but honourable.

Now hang on a second there, Jack. When one comes to consider whether the giving of money to political parties is either ‘dodgy’ or ‘honourable’ one has to consider the motives of the giver and the circumstances in which the giving took place. If all one expects to receive in return for a donation to a political party is a little personal satisfaction from having contributed to a cause one believes in then, yes, one can happily consider that to be ‘honourable’. On the other hand, if one is making a contribution to party funds on the understanding that the quid pro quo will be a measure of influence over government policy, favourable treatment in tendering for government contracts or even a permanant seat in the upper house of the legislature then not only is that not honourable but its rather more than just ‘dodgy’ – in fact the word you’d be looking for is corrupt.

Yes, conference, there are a few professional politicians in every political party.

I’m one of them – but 99% of members of all parties are volunteers, unpaid, often involved in many other aspects of a community’s life, working all hours and in all weathers for no other reason than a belief in their cause.

And how I resent, on their behalf – on YOUR behalf – the denigration of parties’ ordinary members.

Well that’s very noble of you, Jack, but to be honest if I feel I’m being denegrated as party member then I’m well capable of sticking up for myself and, to be honest, I’ve never felt particularly denegrated when it comes to my own humble monthly contribution to party coffers.

We could not have survived as a party, still less have gained office, without the generosity of our members and supporters.

We should be profoundly grateful to the scores in each constituency party who give according to their means, and grateful to the so-called "high value" donors – people who have made some money, but instead of spending it all on themselves give some of it – often in large amounts – to our party.

They’ve done it to put something back, to fulfil their sense of their civic duty.

And for an encore, they’ll be getting together at the end of the conference for a rousing chorus of ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’…

And then, conference, there are the trade unions.

So you’ve remembered? Well done…

Now don’t be taken in by what the Tories tell you. For there’s a shocking secret about the trade unions and Labour’s funding.

The 17 trade unions affiliated to our party have not given us a penny; it’s their members who have – two and a half million of them, who voluntarily choose to pay the political levy.

We should thank them too, from the bottom of our hearts.

Well, yes. That would be a good idea for starters…

The trade union link means that the funding arrangements for the Labour Party are the most heavily regulated of any party and they always have been.

Yes, can’t fault you for accuracy there…

But conference, it is worth reflecting that when political parties first got going – in the nineteenth century, there were no rules about party funding.

Bribery and corruption were rife. No rules – and no Labour party.

Our party, the party for working people; the poor the dispossessed, had no chance until some fairness in funding was introduced.

Again, that’s fair comment… It doesn’t really advance your argument much but it is fair comment…

In modern times, Labour has been at the forefront of measures better to regulate political finance, most recently, with an Act in 2000.

That Act imposed much needed controls on national campaign spending.

But in the eight years since it was first drafted, the world has moved on.

…You’ve missed a bit out there, Jack… you know the bit about us getting caught bypassing the very rules on transparancy in party funding that we put in place.

The internet, customised mailings, and phone banks mean that the old distinction between national and local spending has gone.

Yes…

Campaigning no longer just takes place in the so-called election periods.

Sure, although I can’t think that this is anything particularly new in politics…

So we have to regulate national and local campaign spending at all times and end forever the "arms race" in spending between the parties.

Okay, fine with that as well, but how, exacty are you planning to do that? What is the actual plan?

I hope that the current inquiry under Sir Hayden Phillips is able to secure a consensus between the parties, as I did with the 2000 Act.

Ah, I see. so the plan is to cut a deal with the Lib Dems and the Tories which tries to keep everyone sweet and preserves a status quo that suits the established political parties…

But that consensus will require the Tories to lay off those two and a half million trade union members who pay the political levy.

Let the Tories instead stick to what they told the Standards Committee in 1998:

Quote: "The question of trade union funding of parties is not a matter of direct concern to the Conservative Party. We [the Conservatives] recognise the historic ties that bind the trade union movement with the Labour Party…."

The Standards Committee itself – backing the Tories in this regard – said:

“No change should be made in the law relating to trade unions and their political funds.”

And there’s absolutely no evidence since then of any need to change.

Ah yes – a bit of Tory bashing always goes down well at the party conference, but…

…Jack, you still haven’t actually put forward any concrete or substantive plans for reforming party funding.

As it turns out, the party has published its submission to the Hayden Inquiry, which you can download here (pdf) – just don’t expect it to be a rivetting read. I should also say, to be fair, that of the three main political parties, Labour is the only one (to date) to openly publish its submission to the inquiry, which it describes as being based on three basic principles…

Respect for the differing structures of political parties;

Ensuring parties are able to fund core activities in a level playing field; and

Maintaining public confidence and encouraging wider engagement

As for what it actually proposes over and above the obvious – closing the loophole on loans that both Labour and the Tories have exploited since full disclosure of donations was introduced in the 2000 Act and a cap on campaign spending at general elections – amounts primarly to asking the state to the pick up the tab for the costs of running the party machine in between general elections, although this all dressed up in proposals for a Foundation for Democracy and liberally salted with plenty of aspirational talk of increasing democratic participation.

As pitches, its quite cleverly put together, not least as a result of the party having realised that the taxpayer would seriously baulk at any suggestion of them couching up for the kind of hugely expensive campaign activities that are part and parcel of a modern day general election. Nevertheless, the one thing that runs most clearly through the whole submission – and I would expect to see the same from both the Tories and Liberal Democrats – is a clear intent to preserve the present status quo vis-a-vis the position of the three main political parties.

To understand how the status quo will be preserved one has to dig through the section on financial transparency where one finds this statement…

There is an important decision to be made about how any new framework of donation caps and extended state support should be applied. We believe that the public would not support a general extension of state support to all political parties, which would raise the possibility of parties being created solely in order to obtain these resources from the state. We therefore argue that extended state support should be available only to those political parties which meet a certain threshold based on the number of seats contested at a general election. Such thresholds are common in systems of party funding overseas. In return, to ensure fairness parties which do not meet this threshold should not be subject to the donation or expenditure caps, although they would of course still be subject to all the other rules on reporting.

Although Labour submission does – rather as an afterthought – go on to recognise that the Hayden Inquiry needs to take into account matters such as devolved government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (if it ever gets back up and running) and the existance of parties which operate only  in specific area – i.e. the SNP, Plaid Cymru and, of course, the unique nature of the political system in Northern Ireland, the implication of this passage is clear; state funding is to remain, as much as possibly, locked firmly into the established framework of mainstream political parties such that access is controlled by a simple, yet extremely effective method – the election deposit.

I must admit that I do appreciate the deft manner in which the party has neatly sidestepped the issue of extremist parties tapping into state funding by couching their support for access restrictions based on seats contested in terms of the ‘possibility’ of parties being created solely to obtain funds from the state, nevertheless one cannot help but feel a little uneasy about a situation in which access to a key part of the democratic process; i.e. the capacity to run for office, is quite so obviously and readily controlled by a mechanism as crude as the use of deposits to effectively price potential opponents out of the ‘marketplace’ for votes.

It’s well worth contrasting this situation with the commentary in chapter six of the Power Inquiry report, which looks specifically at political parties and which addresses the causes and implications of both the decline in party membership and the growing democratic deficit in British society to a depth that appears entirely absent from the thinking of the Labour Party and, one would certainly suspect, that of at least the Conservative Party if not also the Liberal Democrats, given that the proposed framework for a Foundation for Democracy in Labour submission looks suspiciously like something on which concensus amongst the three main parties will be easily reached.

As a Labour Party member, I ‘m aware that I’m thinking heretical thoughts here, but in skirting the issue of extremist parties gaining access to state funding, which for all its explicit absence I would think is far more of an influence on Labour’s submission that any suspicion that parties may be contrived purely to gain access to state support, the party has, perhaps inadvertantly, raise an altogether more fundamental set of questions.

If the state (i.e. the taxpayer) is to be expected to finance the day-to-day operation of political parties then why should should that financial support be restricted only to a very limited range of existing mainstream political parties? Just under 39% of the total electorate did not vote at the last general election, so why should they be expected to contribute (via taxation) to the maintenance of political system and framework of political parties which does not appear to engage or represent their interests sufficiently to motivate them to take a short walk to the local polling station once every four or five year?

Why should state funding of political parties be structured in such a way to benefit almost exclusively the three main political parties, whose combined membership now totals less than 600,000, which is around 1.3-1.4% of the total electorate, and more to the point, if the state is to provide substantive funding to political parties, why should it not provide some funding to support both existing and new political parties that offer alternatives to the current big three, especially when the single largest voting ‘bloc’ at the last general election was ‘none of the above’?

The argument that Labour puts forward is simply that ‘the public’ would not support a general extension of state support to all political parties, an argument that is put forward without evidence to substantiate such an assertion and what little evidence there appears to be on the subject of public funding of political parties seems completely inconclusive when to comes to the question of providing state funding to small political parties.

What I have been able to find, in terms of opinion polls, also appears to rather contradictory. The Taxpayers Alliance, in its own submission to the Hayden Inquiry point out the following:

Polls have shown that the public are opposed to taxpayer-funded parties. An ICM poll in April 2006 showed that by 77-20 percent people think that public money should not be used to finance political parties. A poll by Populus, also in April 2006, found that even when the question was loaded heavily in favour of taxpayer-funded parties, the public remain significantly opposed. By 53-43 percent the public disagree with the statement “Political parties should be funded by the state out of taxpayers’ money to eliminate the risk of corruption” (our
italics).

However a different ICM poll, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation offers up a rather different picture of public opinion, one in which there would appear to considerable public disquiet over the influence that high value donors (including trade unions) can exert over political parties, a fairly even split on the question of state funding (41% in favour, 37% against on an obviously loaded question – "Political parties with significant public support should be provided with public funds to reduce their dependency on donations from wealthy individuals, trade unions and businesses") and strong support (60%+) from both capping the size of voluntary donations and for state funding (if it is expanded upon) to be targeted toward local rather than national party activity.

Nowhere, in any of the polls cited above, is the question of state funding for minority parties explicitly addressed – it could well be the case that the public would more readily support the provision for state funding for alternatives to the the three main parties than it would for Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems – we don’t appear to know as that question doesn’t appear to have been asked.

In reality it would be, and is, extremely easy to stir up public sentiment against state funding for minority parties either in the manner that Labour has adopted in raising the spectre of ‘undeserving’ parties being created as an artifice for obtaining public money without an honest ambitions towards playing a part in the overall democratic process, or by the rather more obvious of tactic of throwing the usual political bogeymen in the ring – the far right, far left and, in today’s febrile climate, the possibility of openly communalist parties emerging out of minority ethnic communities. However that misses a rather more fundamental point – if state funding is deemed necessary to support and sustain a healthy democracy in the UK then it must surely follow that the manner in which those funds are allocated to political parties must be democratic, equitable and must not confer an undue advantage on any individal political party or indeed, group of political parties.

Or, more simply, money should not be a barrier to active participation in the democratic process, because that is, well, undemocratic.

With that I’ll move on, having said plenty on the subject of party funding for the time being – after all the headling also promised us Jack’s thoughts on reform of the House of Lords, which is precisely where we’ll picvk up his speech…

Conference, tackling the health of our democracy also means reform of Parliament.

Well, yes, that would be part of it…

Thanks to my predecessors as Leader of the House, not least Robin Cook, we’ve been making many improvements in the way parliament connects with our citizens.

I’m continuing that work.

Good. I’m glad to hear that you’re doing your job as Leader of the House?

A new Visitors Reception Centre will open this Autumn, to make Parliament far more welcoming.

Once you get past the concrete barriers and armed guards… Is it just me or does it seems a touch incongruous for a member of a government that’s slapped a statutory exclusion zone around Parliament to be boasting about making the place more welcoming by putting in a new visitors centre?

There’s a big investment in education in citizenship to make parliament more comprehensible.

An interpreter for Boris wouldn’t go amiss while your on, Jack…

And we’re changing the way Parliament works to make it more effective.

Why do I get the horrible feeling that that’s a rather oblique and disingenuous reference to the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill?

One part of that is modernising the House of Commons and the other is reforming the House of Lords.

Ah, finally we get to the bit about reforming the House of Lords…

Our 2005 manifesto says that we will end the right of hereditary peers to sit in the Lords, and we will do just that.

Didn’t we also say that in 1997 and 2001? You’ll forgive me if I don’t hold my breath…

And then there is the question of exactly what a reformed House of Lords should look like.

Yes…

Elected, appointed or a mixture of both?

Yes…

Conference, there is a myriad of opinions in the party on the composition of a reformed second chamber.

Yes…

So I simply say this:

Please, let us not again make the best the enemy of the good.

What the fuck are you on about, Jack???

Deadlock again will be easy, but reform will require compromise on all sides.

We should not throw away this golden opportunity to make a reform for which the original members of the PLP were fighting 100 years ago.

So what you’re basically saying is that you haven’t actually got a plan at all…

Conference, those early Labour MPs were the pioneers of a movement which has changed Britain for the better.

And that’s it?

They took their seats on the green benches of the House of Commons to fight for workers rights, and above all against grinding poverty and unemployment.

Yep, looks like it. We’re into the valedictory by the looks of things…

They, and all the millions of unknown heroes who have worked so hard for our movement down the decades, through dark days and often without reward, would be so proud today to see their party in its 10th year of successful government.

Oh fuck me, he’ll singing ‘Jerusalem’ in a minute…

Conference, we owe it to them as well as to the British people not to throw these achievements away. 

Ah, I see what you’re doing – you’ve changed the subject because you’ve nothing you can actually point to as an achievement as Leader of the House…

We must inject fresh energy and fresh momentum into our policies and our mission.

An actual honest to goodness idea or two might be nice as well…

Labour is the only party which can continue to change Britain for the better.

Yeah, and Daz is the only washing powder that gets clothes whiter than white – or is that Ariel? Persil? Surf?

Look, I know this the kind of thing you’re expected to say at a party conference, its just that it all rings a bit hollow at the end of speech that’s completely devoid of any meaningful content.

Labour is the party which has to lead the renewal of faith in politics.

Sorry to be a bit picky here, Jack, but how are you going to do that?

Labour is the party whose values are enduring and whose job is far from done.

And we’ll be getting on with it just as soon as we’ve managed to work out exactly what the fuck it is we’re actually going to do.

So to summarise, Jack’s ‘plans’ for reform of party funding and the House of Lords amount to cutting a deal with the Tories and Lib Dems to screw a big enough cash out of the state to pay for the party in between elections and cutting a deal with the Tories and the Lib Dems on reform of the House of Lords, although he has got the foggiest idea what that deal might actually be.

Or more simply, two matters of considerable constitutional importance will be nicely stitched-up by a cosy little political cartel in Westminster and fuck what the public think because they aren’t getting a say in matters – or rather not one that actually matters – and that’s British democracy at work for you…

…and they wonder why nearly eighteen million people can’t be arsed to vote for any of them…

2 thoughts on “Tis better to remain silent and be thought a fool than be Jack Straw and remove all doubt…

  1. We wouldn’t want the taxpayer funding all those little “save our local hospital” parties, would we?

    “We are, on any measure, one of the most successful peacetime governments of the last 100 years.”

    Jack, weren’t you listening to Tony. We’ll be fighting the GWOT for at least a generation.

  2. Time for taxpayer funded elections

    Let me just say it is apparent the time for tax payer funded election is long over due. I know what you

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