Ed Miliband's announcement on Tuesday opens up a genuine and exciting opportunity to change the way that the political parties are funded. If this opportunity is taken, it would be an important first step towards a healthier relationship between parties and the people they represent. And if we are to continue to value our democracy, we urgently need that relationship to improve.
Political parties are the lifeblood of our representative system. They provide the crucial link between people and politics, allowing us to come together over shared ideals. Owing to the realities of government, they have to prioritise certain policies over others and make difficult decisions, something which individual citizens and single-issue pressure groups do not have to do. They provide a route for people to come through our democratic systems and hold public office. Ultimately, they are there to represent the people who vote for them.
Or at least they should be. People are running out of patience with political parties and see them in a highly negative light. Parties are now perceived to be the most corrupt sector in Britain, outranking everything from the media to business and professional sport. And party membership continues to plummet, no matter which mainstream party you are talking about. Parties are an essential element of the drive towards democratisation in many developing countries. Yet here we tend to see them as a hindrance to democracy rather than a help.
There are many aspects to the debate about how to revive the fortunes of political parties, but surely one of the biggest barriers to reform is the influence of big money. Both Labour and the Conservatives have historically been over-reliant on a few major donors - unions on one side, 'high net-worth individuals' on the other. This skews the parties' ability to truly represent the people they serve, and makes a mockery of party democracy.
Attempts to reform the system for funding political parties have foundered time and time again, dashed on the rocks of the parties' partisan interests. Last week it looked like the latest round of cross-party talks had failed once again, with Nick Clegg admitting as much on his weekly radio phone-in. An excellent draft bill sponsored by senior figures from the three main parties recommends the gradual imposition of a £10,000 cap on individual donations. Yet until today, that bill was destined to be ignored.
With Miliband's determination to end the practice of taking block sums from affiliated unions' political funds, there is now no excuse for further delay. All the parties need to get back round the negotiating table and talk about legislating for a donations cap as part of a new party financing deal. They are in a great position to thrash out a settlement on party funding that works in the best interests of everyone.
If they fail to do so, as they have in the past, then we will continue to wallow in a mire of mutual distrust and cynicism. But if they take this opportunity, then people may at last start to regain their respect for the political parties. If we want a healthy representative democracy, nothing is more urgent.
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