Miliband’s gamble: a modest proposal

Ed Miliband — the only leader of a political party willing to condemn Rupert Murdoch — has now embarked on an epic political gamble. He seeks radical reform of the corrupt way we currently fund British political parties. But to be credible — and to counter Tory spin — he first has to get his own house in order, which means terminating the shady process by which trade unions supported Labour financially by pretending that their members were Labour supporters.

As Oona King points out in the New Statesman, there are laudable democratic aspirations behind this policy.

We are told Miliband risks the historic link between Labour and the trade unions, and that in financial terms, Labour may not survive. The main difference between now and 100 years ago (the House of Lords ruling was overturned in 1913) is that the call for reform comes from the Labour Party leader himself, something unimaginable even in Tony Blair’s day, never mind Keir Hardie’s. These proposals make Tony Blair’s reform of Clause IV look like timid toe-dipping. What began as a little (or a large) local difficulty in Falkirk has, on the leader’s say so, become nothing less than a debate around the nature of politics itself. 

At heart, this isn’t primarily an argument about Labour’s link with the trade unions; it is primarily about Labour’s link with democracy, and whether our internal governance is democratic.

Miliband’s gamble is a really bold one, because without union funding Labour is basically bankrupt, and will therefore not to be able to afford a serious election campaign in 2015. And at this point, even those of us who are not necessarily Labour supporters begin to sit up and take notice. Because if — like me — you have come to the conclusion that the Coalition is a disastrous government, then Labour is the only show in town for the 2015 election. The alternative is a government led by Cameron, Gove, Osborne & Co, without even the bleating restraint of the Liberal Democrats.

So here’s my modest proposal.

We know that the best way to eradicate the corruption that stems from our current method of funding political parties — in which cash-rich billionaires, corporations, lobbyists and unions provide campaign contributions in return for you-know-what — is to have a system where parties are funded entirely by small individual donations (maximum £100).

Until fairly recently, such a system would have been costly and difficult to build. But that was then and this is now. The infrastructure for doing it now exists: it’s called the Internet. Not only has it spawned a variety of ways of raising money for charitable purposes (e.g. Just Giving) but also for supporting commercial and non-commercial projects (e.g. KickStarter).

And we know that it works; the Obama campaign in the last two presidential elections in the US showed just how powerful the Net can be as a way of collecting small campaign contributions in huge volumes. As the Washington Post puts it:

Barack Obama raised half a billion dollars online in his 21-month campaign for the White House, dramatically ushering in a new digital era in presidential fundraising.

In an exclusive interview with The Post, members of the vaunted Triple O, Obama’s online operation, broke down the numbers: 3 million donors made a total of 6.5 million donations online adding up to more than $500 million. Of those 6.5 million donations, 6 million were in increments of $100 or less. The average online donation was $80, and the average Obama donor gave more than once.

“You looked at the money being raised online in the same way that you looked at the crowds who came to the rallies,” Joe Rospars, the 27-year-old director of Obama’s new-media department, told The Post. “You were constantly surprised at the number of people who were coming out to see him,” and, when it came to online donations, “people exceeded our expectations as to what they were willing to do.”

The final total raised by Obama online was $1.1 billion.

If Miliband really wants to revitalise British politics — and release us from the grip of the neoliberal lunatics now in charge of our polity — then imaginative use of the Net should become an absolute priority for him. Donations don’t have to come just from Labour supporters. There are lots of Britons who would never think of voting Labour in normal conditions but who also know that some way has to be found of unhorsing a government which won’t even contemplate banning security companies who are facing investigations for massive fraud from bidding for new government contracts.

Setting up an imaginative donation system is not rocket science. Most of the heavy lifting has already been done by the Obama crowd. The old adage –“where there’s a will, there’s a way” — applies: There is a way: Do Miliband & Co have the will?