Almost every modern democracy has problems with the funding of political parties. Neither state nor private funding appears to guarantee that there is no risk of corruption - in some countries such as France, America, Italy and now Britain there have been problems with private funding of political parties, in other countries such as Germany there have been problems with misuse of the taxpayer's money provided for politics.
By the standards of most modern democracies, the level of political corruption in Britain is fairly low, though we have never been so spotlessly clean that we could afford complacency on the subject. Insofar as there is less political corruption in this country than some others, the main reason is probably the limits on campaign spending which ensure that fighting an election is not as ridiculously expensive as it can be in some other nations. But the arrest of Lord Levy, and the guilty plea by Lib/Dem donor Michael Brown, have probably been the last straw which will destroy the present arrangements for funding politics in Britain.
I am convinced that most of the people nominated to the House of Lords by all three major parties were honest individuals who went there to serve their country, and were nominated because the party who put them forward thought they had something to contribute. I am equally convinced that most of the people who gave money to all the major parties did so out of a genuine belief that that party was fighting for something the donors believed in.
The trouble is, enough muck has been thrown over the past few months both at political donations and nominations for honours, some of it apparently justified, that the muck is likely to stick to anyone who gives a large sum of money to a political party. And it is the genuinely honourable people, who would otherwise have given money for altruistic reasons, who are most likely to hate the idea of being accused of corruption and who will find other outlets for their wish to help good causes.
So we have to look again at how to fund politics. Many people will say "a plague on all your houses - if all the political parties go bust it will be a good thing." That may sound attractive to those who despise and distrust all politicians, but it's not actually very constructive, not least because it would probably take us back to the days of the 18th century when politics became a game played between rival groups of very rich men.
David Cameron's democracy task force has made the interim suggestions of a cap on individual donations at £50,000 combined with tax relief on political donations. I support those policies, but I suspect that we need to do more.
I have always been immensely unhappy about giving taxpayer's money to political parties. I remain totally opposed to any proposal which would give taxpayers money to political parties without any reference to the views of the taxpayers - I would not want any of my own taxes going to Labour or the Lib/Dems, never mind the BNP.
However, given the depth of the problem we now face, I think there is a case for looking further at an idea which was suggested a few years ago by a commission on political funding. This would providing some financial support to parties but subject to control by the voters.
The way it would work is that there would be a box at the bottom of the ballot paper at general elections, which would say something like "Tick this box if you wish the party you have supported to receive assistance from the Democracy Support fund."
Displayed prominently in each polling station would be a notice explaining exactly what this means, which would be that for each voter for a registered political party who ticked the box, the party he or she voted for would receive a modest amount of taxpayer's money - say £5 p.a. - for each year of the following parliament. So if a party received 5 million votes, and 50% of those voters ticked the box, that party would receive an annual sum of £5 times 50% times 5 million, or £12.5 million p.a.
A fixed percentage of the money should go to the national party and the remainder to the local party in that constituency so that the money supported local democracy as well as the national organisation - the last thing we need is a political funding system which further reinforces the centralisation of British politics.
It is not a perfect system but at least it would provide money to fund political campaigns in a way which would require the active consent of the taxpayers who are paying. It would also mean that political parties which ignore the views of the public would pay for it financially as well as in terms of MPs elected. I think it is a racing certainty that a significant proportion of voters for each party would tick the box but also that millions of others would not.
And for the first time the electorate would have an effective lever against MPs in safe seats. A member of parliament for such a constituency who supports policies which are massively unpopular may still be re-elected, but then find that his or her local party chairman has something to say about the loss of a huge chunk of the constituency party's income.
There is an official Review chaired by Sir Hayden Phillips which is currently investigating political funding. They are inviting comments from the public. If you have any views for or against the ideas in this post, or any other suggestions on the subject, why not write into Sir Hayden's review and have your say ? A link to the website is here
(The URL is http://www.partyfundingreview.gov.uk/)
and you can email them on