Even so, political parties struggle to meet their costs, with results that have recently been embarrassing. A review set up by the government and due to report this month seems likely to suggest more state funding to save parties the indignity of so much tin-rattling. That would be either a controversial new subsidy to prop up floundering organisations that do not deserve help, or continuation of a trend that has existed for some time. It depends on how state support for parties is counted.
Cash funding is currently small. The ruling party gets all of its policy-development work done free by the civil service and a small army of political advisers on the government payroll. But for the past six years a policy fund worth 2m a year has been available to the opposition parties in Parliament to help them develop ideas such as how to restructure the National Health Service, again.
In addition to this, the opposition parties in the House of Commons get Short money, named after the leader of the house when it was introduced, to help pay for foreign travel, the leader of the oppositions office and the parties general parliamentary doings. This started in 1975, and has steadily increased in value since then. In the latest financial year, the Tories received around 4m in Short money and the Liberal Democrats 1.5m.
Opposition parties in the House of Lords receive much less in Cranbourne money, which was introduced in 1996 and earmarked for similar use. Then there is about 2m, distributed between the three main parties, from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (which is financed by the Foreign Office), to help parties spread democracy abroad. The annual total of direct state funding to the three main parties at Westminster comes to a modest 9.5m, or under a sixth of their combined income. Parties get non-financial help, though, particularly in an election year. And it is here that the counting gets tricky.
One reason why general elections in Britain can be run for less than 20m per partyan amount that would not have been sufficient to fight one of the more expensive races for a seat in Americas Senate last yearis that broadcast advertising is banned. Instead, the terrestrial television channels are obliged to air party-political broadcasts free. If parties had to pay for these, they would cost an estimated 68mthough they would probably be shorter, punchier and cheaper. Candidates are also entitled to post an election address to every voter, which is delivered at a total cost to the taxpayer of 20m.
If all these bits are added in, then state funding for parties in an election year is greater than the typical annual incomes of Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems combined. And thats before the costs of running an MPs office as well as housing and travel expenses are taken into account. Some subsidy is essential if legislators are to do their job but MPs also use this funding to build electoral support in their constituencies. None of the subsidy comes without strings, however. Which is why the parties are now pushing so hard to get some that does.
The Economist Newspaper Limited 2007