How British party finance might have changed for good

The fundamental basis for the financing of the Labour party has been conceded by the recent Collins reforms. Sam Power outlines how this moment can be seen as a critical juncture in the continued evolution of the British party funding regime.

On the evening of 22nd February 2012, there was a fracas in the Strangers’ Bar of the House of Commons. Although the exact details are unclear, Labour MP Eric Joyce is said to have shouted ‘there are too many Tories in here’ before brawling with several fellow MPs and their guests. Joyce was suspended from the Labour party and vowed to stand down from parliament in 2015. This set in motion the selection process for a new candidate in his Falkirk constituency.

The controversy surrounding this process lead to a Labour party review (the Collins Review) which involved fundamental (re)considerations of the link between the party and the trade unions. Utilising new institutional analysis, my article in Politics argues that this represents a critical juncture in the evolution of the way British political parties are financed.

Party finance in Great Britain has been largely defined by its exceptionalism in a wider European context. In most of these states significant state funding is the norm, whereas Britain remains largely supported by private sources. The article employs elite interviews to outline three key institutional locks that have acted as stumbling blocks to reform: a lack of public support for change, issues of timing and the inability to navigate agreement on opting-in to the trade union political levy.

Due to a number of internal and external pressures on the Miliband government – including the stramash in the Strangers’ Bar – one of these locks may very well have been picked. Amongst the legion reforms suggested in the Collins Review was an agreement amongst the unions that they would only affiliate to Labour those that opted-in to the political levy. These proposals were ultimately accepted by the party at a special conference in the spring of 2014.

Negotiations around party funding reform were described as like a game of chess, where it was quite easy to be checkmated, as such the tactical nous of this decision was questioned by many research participants involved. One argued that not only did conceding the opt-in before receiving ‘anything in return seem[ed] arse-about-face’ but that the review itself ‘emboldened the Tories’ to undertake further reforms to trade unions – including on the opt-in.

Furthermore, although it was Labour who effectively walked into the checkmate, the Conservative proposals were criticised for breaking the (unwritten) convention that significant reform to political party finances would not be forwarded in a partisan manner.

My article, “The British party funding regime at a critical juncture? Applying new institutional analysis“, ultimately shows that the concession of the opt-in represents a critical juncture in British party finance reform. New institutional literature suggests that critical junctures occur when newly identifiable policy paths appear. The analysis identifies three potential paths in this case: continued inertia, Conservative pragmatism and the death of consensus.

The juncture may have occurred due to a literal exogenous left-hook, other internal struggles within the Labour party or both. Nevertheless, the Collins Review represents a moment in which new policy options freed themselves from a previously intractable institutional lock. As such the critical juncture was a moment where (continued) uncertainty regarding the future of an institutional arrangement – the British party funding regime – allowed political agency and choice to play a pivotal causal role.

After significant controversy and an emergency House of Lords Select Committee, the Trade Union Act reflects a watered down version of the Trade Union Bill. However, this is no reason to discard the concession of the opt-in as any less important. Although the opt-in will now only apply to new trade union members the principle of the opt-in has been conceded – and has been conceded by the Labour party. This will have an effect on any further talks and discussions regarding party funding reform.

It will be the work of future party funding scholars to outline the precise long-term effect of this reform. The choices that political actors make will have a significant outcome, not only on the future of British political finance, but perhaps the way in which we understand how political finance reform occurs.

Samuel Power

Samuel Power

Sam Power is a Doctoral Researcher and Associate Tutor at the University of Sussex affiliated with the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption. He does comparative research on party funding regimes and corruption in Western Europe.

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