This would only work if assets were available. None currently are, but the party is in government so policy is its biggest asset. Policy could be bid over so, for example, Murdoch might pay £10m to have the abolition of the licence fee in the manifesto. MPs and party members would doubtless object to many proposals, but the alternative is the NEC members becoming collectively bankrupt and party accounts being shut. There goes any election campaign.
The threat is very real. From the New Statesman comes this enlightening admission:
Quite how those who are courting this rapidly declining asset stand to benefit is unclear. Another businessman who is part of the “Syndicate”, as he puts it, is less guarded. If new Labour became a “limited liability party”, it might be possible, he says – not entirely jokingly – to “sell non-core policies, from a customer perspective, as three-to five-year options on implementation in office”. These could include policy sales to the nuclear industry or to the green lobby. “This,” he points out, “could help ensure that national policies achieve the highest returns. And that could only benefit the shareholders – or, as they used to be known, the party members.”
The part is in government. They can therefore hand policy over to whoever will pay. They become shareholders, and run effectively decide what the government does – much as shareholders do to businesses on the market. The NEC is saved from financial doom, the shareholders have their interests seen to, and the voters are forgotten.
It would, after all, be the voters who lose out here. They’re the ones who are meant to pass judgement on government policy, at election time. Whatever NS’ source says on core and non-core policies – already vague, given that at present “core” adds up to a washy commitment to equality for Labour – this system means that manifesto policies voted on at election could simply fly out the window. And with them, the very point of representative government.
“How is this any different to the current system?” you might ask. “Organisations already buy policy from parties, in practise if not theory. The unions and the tycoons for Labour, the tycoons and business for the Tories. It happens.”
And yes, it does happen. But nothing now could be as direct or as forceful as a shareholder system in subverting democracy. There’s at least a semblence of internal democracy in the political parties: members vote on major positions and changes. If a politician has taken cash from a donor and made a decision they oppose, they’ve the opportunity to pressure them and reverse the policy. And it’s relatively fair and equal: one member, one vote.
But there’s a very different semblence of democracy in shareholder-based organisations. Shareholders too can hold their appointees to account, with one, important difference. Where political parties give a vote per membership, and only allow you one membership, shaeholder systems allocate votes per share.
And you can own more than one share. So if you’re rich and interested and buy a majority holding, you can in effect force whatever you want through. One share, one vote – and lots of shares if you can afford it.
Rich shareholders would thus force policies on a party far more reliably than rich donors do at present. The Statesman’s source’s example of the nuclear lobby and the green lobby is a good example. The nuclear lobby tends to be far better funded than its opposition – energy companies versus concerned citizens. They could buy up a large quantity of shares and swamp the smaller, but more numerous, bulk of members. It potentially wouldn’t matter if there was a massive grassroots movement in the party against nuclear development – if the nuclear lobby had enough shares, they could outvote them. And we’d have nuclear power, whether we’d voted for it or not.
Major national decisions would end up in the hand of those that can pay. Very democratic.
If you want a taste of what this might lead to, see this chilling statement from another interested party:
“We have been watching how Silvio Berlusconi created Forza Italia in parallel to his business interests, and we believe that our idea offers a fascinating adaptation to British conditions.”
Silvio Berlusconi is a massive media tycoon who bought into politics with his wallet and his right wing populism. Look at where he is now, and what he’s done.
Rupert Murdoch is a massive media tycoon. Look at what he could do if he bought into politics…
It could happen. And democracy would be dead.