Lukewarm response from UK parties to political finance reform

The initial response from the main UK parties to Sir Christopher Kelly's report on political finance has been lukewarm.

The main theme echoed by politicians is that the current economic climate makes it hard to conceive of any more taxpayers' money being diverted to fund political parties.

Cynics say this is a convenient argument, which masks Conservative scepticism about the Committee on Standards in Public Life's recommendation on a £10,000 maximum limit for donations, and Labour scepticism about matching proposed changes to trade union funding.

If the committee's proposal to give parties £3 for each Westminster vote they receive and £1.50 for each devolved vote were to be accepted it would have major implications for the Stormont parties.

It would mean, for example, that the DUP who topped the Assembly poll in May, would get nearly £300,000 for their efforts.

Sinn Fein, who topped the Westminster poll last year, would earn more than £500,000.

Apart from putting the local parties on a sounder financial basis, state funding might change the way they operate.

For example if every vote was worth hard cash would parties be so ready to stand aside from certain seats on a tactical basis?

But given the reaction across the water, local party treasurers should not be counting on a bonus from the taxpayer anytime soon.

Transparency

The recent controversy over the DUP charging £50 for a seminar with Health Minister Edwin Poots shows there will always be a public interest in how parties generate cash, especially when politicians from those parties are occupying positions of power and making decisions which have financial implications for others.

In response to local lobbying, the Northern Ireland Office has repeatedly shied away from making local party donations transparent.

But Alliance's Stephen Farry pointed out that the security of donors argument seems increasingly threadbare, given there is no record of people who have signed party nomination forms being targeted.

It is hard to see how the NIO can continue to resist Sir Christopher Kelly's demand for a clear timetable on transparency.

The committee's other recommendation, that policy development grants should depend on a party's strength at Stormont, not just the number of MPs who take their Westminster seats, reads like good news for Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionists and Alliance.

A fresh source of funding probably will not alter Sinn Fein's behaviour.

Kudos

But if the UUP had a revenue stream which was not dependent on holding ministerial office would it make them more likely to flirt with the idea of opposition?

Whilst the DUP will not have enjoyed the publicity over the Edwin Poots seminar story, they will be hoping for more kudos from their party political broadcast later this week.

The broadcast is timed to coincide with party's annual conference.

Perhaps because an election is a long way off the DUP has devoted the broadcast, not to a direct appeal to vote for them, but to a general appeal on behalf of charities which support members of the armed services.

It is not the first time this has been done - the Conservatives devoted a previous party political broadcast to an East African famine appeal.

It is a subtle stratagem, working on the assumption that by associating itself with a worthy cause, the party will enhance its reputation with the public.

However when the European elections draw closer expect to see a return to the traditional "vote for us" broadcasts.