The Party

Most of us enjoy a good party. Indeed, I was fortunate enough yesterday to have attended the garden party given, as he does each year, by the British ambassador to celebrate the official birthday of H.M. Queen Elizabeth. The flag flew, the sun shone, the band played – a jolly enjoyable occasion. I even managed to exchange a few words with Minister of Finance. Which was in away apposite because, when it comes to parties, those of the political variety at least, there are moves afoot to change the rules of funding in Poland.

In a move which restores (somewhat) one’s faith in politicians, the Polish Prime Minister announced yesterday that a draft bill is being prepared to remove the funding of political parties from the state budget. While acknowledging that each method of party political funding has its good and bad sides, Donald Tusk said that in his opinion the funding of political parties by taxpayers was the least acceptable in Poland. The Prime Minster expressed confidence that political parties will be able to support themselves through the contributions from their members and followers. He went on to say that party political donations should be transparent and registered with some degree of control be exercised via the National Electoral Office and that any member of a political party who was to accept money from an unknown source should be penalized.

This is not the first time that the ruling PO party has proposed the ending of state funding of political parties but hitherto there has not been the support of the necessary majority in the Sejm to make the changes. Inevitably, the fact that these changes are proposed now not born entirely of a wish to demonstrate good will to the electorate: recent press reports of how political parties have been spending taxpayers’ hard earned cash, including expenditure on – designer clothes, restaurants, wine and cigars – have clearly had an effect. And if the changes are finally enacted, the savings could be as much as PLN 450 million, a reasonable saving in a time of austerity.

Whatever the motivation, these changes are to be welcomed. A properly functioning democracy requires a method of forming a stable government and of ensuring that the government is fully accountable to the electorate. The political party is an essential element of this process. The party has to attract support by appealing directly to the electorate on whom, it relies for both votes and financial support. In this way the electorate is fully involved in the democratic process as the political parties have necessarily to compete for support which should encourage the party’s policies to reflect the concerns of the electorate. This helps to temper extremism, although not always. If the need to compete for support is removed, then the wishes of the electorate may be more easily ignored.

Indeed, it is clear from the foregoing that a “first past the post” system such as that in the UK is actually much more democratic than the proportional representation systems which are typical in the Continent. Under the British system because each constituency has a single member it is possible for the electorate to remove an individual member of parliament. This is why at each general election several prominent politicians lose their seats, something which seems very rare elsewhere. In the British system the constituents do have the final say over who will represent them; in a proportional representation, in effect this is transferred to the party where those high up in the list are almost invulnerable to electoral challenge. Combine this with state funding of political parties and the electorate is almost disenfranchised. The argument that private donations to political parties is somehow a corrupt way of buying influence may be easily answered by ensuring public disclosure of all donations in excess of a certain threshold. Of course folk try to influence political parties: those who advocate state funding of political parties will not be free of all influence – including that of the electorate – but will be free of scrutiny, a bad thing.

Except infrequently, the British system also gives a clear result so a government with a clear majority is formed. Proportional representation gives rise to horse trading as coalitions are formed which gives the minority parties a disproportionate influence. A general election is not an opinion poll – all shades of opinion do not have to be represented in government. It is no accident, in the UK for example, that it is the Liberal Democrats who are most in favour proportional representation and state funding of political parties. In other words, although their policies do not command wide enough appeal to enable enough members of parliament to be elected to form a government (the current coalition is an atypical arrangement outside wartime) they seek to engineer a system which compensates for their lack of electoral appeal by forcing the tax payer to pay the party anyway and to bring about a permanent state of coalitions which would almost certainly have to include them. So much for the electorate’s wishes.

Poland does have a system of proportional representation and that seems unlikely to change. Nevertheless by proposing that political parties fund themselves which will only be achieved by a closer engagement with the electorate is a good thing. The Polish prime minister is to be congratulated. State funding may be ending but the party has only just begun.

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