Parties should be funded by the state

Ed Miliband’s recent foray into Labour’s funding by trade unions has brought the question of state funding of political parties to the foreground, once again highlighting the reluctance on the part of the political class to consider state funding, due to fear of public opinion.

While it is true to claim that money yields far lesser clout in British politics than the infamous multi-billion dollar campaigns of the United States, our current system of party funding is not ideal.

State funding of political parties is commonplace in countries like Sweden and Germany. The amount of funding that parties receive from the state is usually relative to the share of the popular vote which they receive in elections. State funding helps parties in these countries focus on reaching out to the electorate and crafting policy for the population, rather than spending time chasing around and attempting to entice and impress potential donors.

Some commentators strongly deplore the concept of state funding, as they believe that parties with public support should be capable of raising funds independently. As for the public’s apparent disdain for state funding, it is understandable. The idea that technically a small fraction of your taxes will be helping to fund a political party you do not support appears rather unfair and unpalatable.

Funds raised through membership fees and average member donations account for only a small fraction of the total expenditure of modern political parties. The shortfall is primarily made up for by wealthy donors such as Lord Salisbury and Lord Ashcroft, alongside funding from groups such as businesses and trade unions. While British politics is by no means corrupt, the current system of party funding could be said to be democratically disproportionate in some cases (the Conservatives have greater campaign funds than Labour, even during Labour’s time in government between 1997-2010), and to some degree exposes parties to minor influence from individuals and organisations with considerable sums of money.

Parties are a pivotal and essential component of functional democracy. They organise broad but similar standpoints into cohesive groupings with clear agendas. The modern political party is in a near-constant state of campaigning, participating in elections for public office and also supporting local movements and issues. They mobilise activists, hire advisors and political staff, craft comprehensive policy, and commission and conduct opinion polls and studies. These are all crucial aspects of any liberal democracy, but all come with a hefty price which must be paid for by someone.

Of course, smaller parties such as the Greens and UKIP would receive minimal state funding due to the fact that our national electoral system is majoritarian, rather than because of state funding itself. Within a proportional system, smaller parties would enjoy greater representation in Parliament and subsequently receive proportionate state funding.

To conclude, in the grand scheme of things, no other scheme rivals state funding in its ability to tackle, and depending upon the extent of the funding provided, eliminate the role of monetary influence in the political process. There really are only two options when it comes to party funding: either continue to have parties rely upon wealthy donors, or have the state support electorally-successful parties, thus establishing a neutral revenue stream and greater transparency in policy-making.

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Let’s be rational: Syria is not Iraq

Following further evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria and the ratcheting  up of involvement in the crisis by the US, there has developed a trend to refer back to and in some cases draw parallels with Iraq when discussing the crisis in Syria. Drawing such a conclusion is deeply simplistic, and jeopardous for the people of Syria and the surrounding region.

Principal among the very distinct characteristics of the Syrian crisis is the clear and hugely widespread humanitarian crisis which has left thousands of innocents killed, millions internally displaced, and an increasingly large diaspora of refugees leaving the country, many of whom are living without adequate sustenance or shelter. The UN has made unprecedented calls for humanitarian relief funding, appealing for $5 billion to support UNHCR operations in Syria’s neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. Due to the conflict’s absence of any prospect of conclusion, and the long-term post-conflict humanitarian implications of the situation, this cost will inevitably rise in the future, while at the same time current appeals are failing to be met by the international community.

Alongside the humanitarian crisis is the origin and spirit of the conflict. The dawn of the revolution was not marked by Islamist militant attacks, but instead by peaceful protests hot on the heels of the Arab Spring. The protests varied in objective, but were invariably concerned with the desire for greater government transparency and electoral democracy. Dumbstruck, the regime defaulted to the hard handed approach of its previous leader, Hafez al-Assad, crushing protests with excessive force, resulting in many deaths. As tensions between the regime and protesters flared further, protesters began arming themselves, at first to protect demonstrations from deadly police action, but rapidly transitioning to infantry-based small arms skirmishes, gradually burgeoning into the conflict we are witnessing today. While protesters having to resort to armed conflict is a disheartening process to observe, the regime’s severe and utterly disproportionate response to protests was inexcusable and betrayed fundamental human rights, anchoring the foundations of the rebellion firmly in the aspiration of liberal democracy and human rights.

Significantly, the Syrian conflict is multifarious. It is all too easy, especially in the world of relentless headlines, to harbour a one-dimensional facile perspective of the situation in Syria. There is no single aspect of the conflict from which it is possible to extrapolate an accurate and succinct generalisation. There are genuine freedom fighters, the preponderant group of which is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with a real, albeit weak, command structure and a severe lack of supplies. The absence of steady supply lines for the FSA both in terms of food as well as weaponry and ammunition has made it possible for the better-resourced anti-regime foreign and domestic jihadists to amass themselves a higher and more prolific profile than secular freedom fighters, as well as de facto governmental control over areas such as Ar-Raqqah. Extreme groups such as these purportedly receive funding from regional actors such as Iran, with the recent entrance of the militant Lebanese-based Hezbollah into the conflict in support of the regime being a visible product of Iranian funding. Additionally, the north of Syria has fallen under some form of Kurdish control, seemingly seeking to establish a Syrian Kurdistan similar to the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region. Other regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided meager assistance to opposition forces. It could even be said that there is a lack of clarity when it comes to the motives behind the regime’s staunch opposition to change – while it is true that the regime is mostly made up of a minority, the Alawites, and that there is a fear of reprisals against the Alawites if the regime were to fall,  it could be argued that Bashar Al-Assad’s determination to cling to power stems from an unwillingness to release dictatorial power first and foremost before any concerns for the minority group to which he belongs.

With these things taken into account, it would be wrong to bind cases of notoriety (such as the cruel implementation of Sharia law, or the cannibalistic rebel) to the reticent majority of the population, or take such notorious cases to be a perfect reflection of all armed rebels. Equally, these things do not justify any single automatic course of action by the West. What is evident however is that for any argument to be levelled either for or against intervention of any sort there must be substantial deliberation within the context of the circumstances on the ground in Syria, and also be approached with the persistent undercurrent of the desire to relieve humanitarian strife.

Ultimately, there is an imperative for any Western solution to the Syrian crisis to be strategically multi-pronged, involving both regional players as well as the Syrian people. Relying purely on diplomacy, or purely on varying degrees of intervention such as arming the rebels, will not produce rounded results encompassing broad interests and concerns, crucial for long-term stability. Sadly, the last two years of pure diplomacy have been ineffectual, failing the millions of Syrians on the ground who are suffering every day in direct violation of both the spirit and text of the United Nations Charter. Undoubtedly, diplomacy is a pivotal facet of any solution, and we must continue to pursue it as one channel of resolution, but it must not be pursued in a vacuum. The crisis in Syria is set to continue to intensify, further plunging not just the country but the wider Middle East and North Africa region into a huge schism from which relief is uncertain. The fragile conditions of nearby states such as Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Iraq, as well as the more quiescent Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan could, in the escalating climate, very easily erupt into varying degrees of violence as a result of spillovers from the Syrian conflict. Lebanon and Iraq are already experiencing an insidious growth in violence.

There is no denying that the Iraq war has cast a lengthy and justified shadow over Western intervention, something which David Cameron has explicitly recognised. However, rather than be blinded by intransigence, we should look back at the failures of Iraq and identify the many areas in which we can improve our handling of delicate situations such as that presented to us in Syria. What we must recognise is that there is a principled obligation for states to look after one another – for the international community to safeguard human rights and build a more stable world. Isolationism, as some Western commentators appear to advocate following Iraq, serves the interests of precious few. Instability, anywhere in the world, assists few and harms many.

In conclusion, with situations like Syria, rather than sit on the sidelines and hope that the situation resolves itself, we have a responsibility to be active in a proportional, pragmatic and bespoke manner.