People Power, Not Pounds and Pence

Publically funded political parties could be part of the answer to the present mistrust and corruption in politics. It’s time to ban donors.

Party donors currently have too much power in politics: money should not talk louder than popular support. (Photo: BBC/Getty Images)

Party donors currently have too much power in politics: money should not talk louder than popular support. (Photo: BBC/Getty Images)

Who pays for politics? It may seem like an odd question, but the underlying truth explains many of the current problems with our system of governance in the UK. With parties funded by rich donors and big business, the concerns of the many are all too easily ignored by those in power. This needs to be replaced by a public structure of funding based on popular support for parties and their policies, with each person’s equal vote going towards an equal voice in politics.

Currently, our parties are funded in an uneven way that fails to reflect popular support for policies and gives big businesses a distorted role in deciding the course of government. If you consider the priorities of David Cameron’s administration, you see that the last six years have been a bonanza for very few: a shaky economic recovery with weak wage growth has failed to reward the hard-working for their contribution to our prosperity, whilst inequality soars and the number of children in poverty rose by 200,000 last year alone. But some people have done very well out of the last six years of stagnation – the bank levy is going down and down, and private health companies are making a killing out of our increasingly profit-driven NHS.

It therefore should come as no surprise that the City handed the Tories around half of their donations to win in 2010. For the big banks this is an excellent investment: throw a couple of million into politics, drown out the voices of the many and get a government that will give you an easy ride, rather than hold you responsible for trashing the global economy. Equally, private health companies’ links to the Conservatives are being well rewarded, with billions of pounds worth of contracts handed to businesses closely connected to those responsible for the Health and Social Care Act. This is plutocracy, not democracy: we have an equal number of votes each, so they should be equally important.

We should reward those who give their time to causes, not write cheques in expectation of future gains. (Photo: The Guardian)

We should reward those who give their time to causes, not write cheques in expectation of future gains. (Photo: The Guardian)

The sordid web of money, influence and subversion also impacts our honours system; long overdue for reform, it is simply not fit for purpose. Awards that are purportedly given for public service should actually require some public service, not backing political parties or donating money to them. Whilst cronyism cannot be entirely alleviated without wholesale reform of the honours system, a move away from private donors would help to revalue and strengthen the public’s trust in such appointments.

So what can be done to replace this? Currently, parties do receive some public funding for administrative costs; the Opposition is granted “Short Money” in the Commons and “Cranborne Money” in the Lords, to offset the incumbent government’s ability to publicise its initiatives through the civil service. This is the right way of funding our political system. All donations should be abolished: individuals would not be able to pay or loan parties more than £100 as a membership fee. Parties would receive yearly payments proportional to the vote won at the previous general election, ensuring that everyone’s support was worth the same amount. New groups could receive a start-up grant, and extra funding could be allotted in election years dependent on the number of candidate put forward. In 2014, combined party expenditure was £180 million, or equivalent to 0.03 per cent of public spending; both affordable and necessary for the state to fund.

The advantages of this system would be numerous. With the votes of the rich and poor worth the same amount to party machines, it would pay to win as many votes as possible, rather than exploit the weaknesses of first past the post and only appeal to those in marginal constituencies. Party policy would have to be popular and reflect the public good, rather than handing state contracts over to donors. It would re-enfranchise millions of people, who are currently ignored, with everyone’s vote – regardless of age, gender identity, class or ethnicity – being worth chasing. The very survival of our parties would rely on their earning broad based support, rather than exploiting economic divisions or appealing to sectarian interests.

Another benefit of the state granting parties their incomes and banning donors is that it rewards those who campaign for a cause, not simply those who write cheques. If the bankers wanted lower taxes in future, they would have to put down the champagne, haul themselves up from their gilt thrones and go round the doorsteps of Britain in the rain like the rest of us. Mass organisation, rather than wealth, would be the key to victory: groups like the Countryside Alliance, the TUC or 38 Degrees would continue to flourish, with their members giving up their time to convince, campaign and organise activists. Democracies are only healthy when they are supported by the work of the many, not the wealth of the few.

Hard work, volunteerism and equal respect for everyone are the building blocks of good community within a well-run democracy, and these are all undermined when the wealthy few can shape government policy via their chequebooks. State-funded politics cuts across too many vested interests, and is too easily spun as a costly imposition, to be a viable policy in the short-term. But its advantages, in encouraging equality, transparency and rewarding popularity are all badly needed. Public trust in politicians is never high, and Britain is a case in point: a clearer and fairer system of funding will provide us with the policies we want, not just those bought by big donors.

Perhaps it would be expensive – and certainly a hike from the £11 million in grants to parties in 2015. Democracy is not cheap, but is nonetheless incalculably valuable; and if it’s worth having, it’s worth paying for.

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1 Response

  1. Antony Tucker says:

    Thanks for your comment – I agree that total transparency is the key. I would be wary of over restricting party autonomy on how they spend their funds; but a good campaign would make the best use of publuc funds however it was allocated. Public funding would require rigourous auditing, but that itself wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

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