The Tories Are Giving Every Impression They Want to Skew Our Democracy
The amount of money is small but the issue is big. And the chances are that, unless you follow the minutiae of politics, you will not have heard of it.
In his autumn ‘budget’ George Osborne proposed cutting so-called Short Money, the public funds that the non-government political parties receive, by some 19% from April 2016. On Thursday, he was urged to think again. With an NHS strike, a teacher shortage, massive cuts to local government you may think there are issues of greater importance. You may be right, but big deal? Well, actually, yes it is.
Short money was introduced in 1974 by the then Commons Leader Ted Short. Its function was to set up a permanent financial arrangement to enable opposition parties, large and small, to play their full part in the House of Commons. Allocated by a formula based on the number of votes and seats each party has, it is available to all opposition parties who have secured either two parliamentary seats, or have one elected representative and over 150,000 vote at the previous general election. It goes towards parliamentary research, funding the opposition leader's office,and meeting travel and associated expenses of opposition politicians.
In a modern parliamentary democracy Short money has become a necessary part of the democratic process. In a system skewed towards government, where a majority party has the vast resources of the civil service behind it and where the boundaries between party and government are easily blurred, it gives the opposition a fighting chance. The playing field between government and opposition can never be level, but Short money lessens the incline.
democratic government can only function if those who oversee it understand and believe in its value
Introduced by Labour, it was increased by New Labour. In fact - and this goes against every control-freakery narrative - it was trebled. Between 1997 - 2010 the Conservative Party took nearly 50 million in Short money. It is possible that without it they would not have recovered as a political party. What is definite is that, rejected by the electorate, spurned by opportunistic donors and divided over Europe, they would have been completely unable to provide any kind of opposition to a landslide government. And whether it is from the left or right, we need accountability. We need an opposition.
This is not an argument about austerity or cuts. Yes, the cut is in line with the average, non-protected (Health, Defence, DfId) departmental budgets but the sums involved are laughably small: the ‘freeze’ will save £10 million during the course of this parliament. In all likelihood whether it is the DUP or Labour, the opposition parties will have to lay off staff to balance their budgets. The impact will be they will be less able to check this government. Yet the budget for Special Advisers is going up.
Much-maligned, SpAds perform a function which a politically-neutral civil service cannot. But as opposition leader David Cameron gave an easy promise to “cut the cost of politics” by reducing their number. In office the number of Tory SpAds has increased by 39% to 96, costing £8.4 million per annum. George Osborne currently has ten. Last year the total salary bill for Treasury SpAds alone was £500,000. Staggering hypocrisy? Let us just say that the government cannot coherently do both simultaneously.
Funding politics is never popular. Politicians are never popular. However, in a parliamentary system we need to invest in our democracy. Governments are under no obligation to advertise their failures. It is the role of parliament and opposition to hold a government to account and therefore, in theory, to ensure we are better governed. It might not be a perfect system but no-one has yet come up with anything better. It is, to paraphrase Rab Butler, the best system that we have. But democratic government can only function if those who oversee it understand and believe in its value.
Democracy is not just about electing governments. It is about having accountable governments
This is not about state-funded political parties. This is about democracy. The Trade Union Bill, English Votes for English Laws, a proposed curb on the powers of the second chamber, Freedom of Information, a boundary review... each has an whiff of stacking the democratic decks in the government's favour.
Democracy is not just about electing governments. It is about having accountable governments. It is about the fact that it is not just at elections that politicians are answerable. They are answerable every day in parliament. It is about MPs being able ask questions and demand answers. It is the moral duty of government to ensure that in our national debating chamber they are scrutinised. Cutting Short money hurts democracy. It is as simple as that.
If you will forgive the pun, it is also rather short (ho ho) sighted. Governments do not fall easily. The most a clever opposition is able to do is stimulate decline by prodding and exposing weaknesses. Foolish and over-reaching parties can also aid their own demise. After four election wins from 1979 - 1992, a fifth would have snapped the democratic elastic. It was time for a change. But suspicious of their motives, people gave up listening to them. The Tories spent thirteen years in opposition.
Perhaps cutting Short money was proposed with the purest of pure motives but I hate to say it: it all just smells “nasty”.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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