Give voters real power and donors will lose influence - RSA

Give voters real power and donors will lose influence


  • Institutional reform

The well-off buying policies is in the news again. There is a simple, democratic solution.

So that perennial issue of wealthy donors bending British politics to their will is back although this time it has the added bitter twist that while the donors seem very keen to hand their millions over to party HQ, they seem rather more unsure about HMRC.

Like those other problems - House of Lords and electoral reform -  that A-Level politics students have been writing balanced essays about for decades but in which the status quo serves the interests of the main parties, the donor issue never seems to be resolved.

This is not for lack of solutions. Two obvious ones have been talked about for ages: a cap on donations and taxpayer funding of parties. The politicians have never managed to agree on the former and none of the main parties is brave enough to face the ire of voters for formally proposing the latter although the super-patrician Ken Clarke has stepped manfully into the breach today.

The parties’ reticence on this is quite right: I think I am far from alone in being distinctly unimpressed by the idea of my hard earned salary funding some of the most dysfunctional, self-interested, short-termist organisations in the country.

Mark Wallace at Conservative Home has suggested that the only alternative is for parties to become much more reliant on raising money from large numbers of small donors – what might be called the ‘crowdfunding solution’. This is certainly preferable but I remain unconvinced that parties in their current form could undertake such an exercise with any success. The main parties are almost universally hated, there is no clear Obama moment ahead which will inspire millions to hand over a few quid and, anyway, such moments are just that: ephemeral spikes in enthusiasm rather than a long-term funding solution.

There is, however, one relatively simple measure that would kick wealthy donors or, at least, their influence out of politics for good and, unlike taxpayer funding, it has the benefit of deepening our democracy. It is the introduction of a statutory requirement for MPs to discover and represent the views of their constituents in Parliament above all else.

A non-statutory, voluntary version of this is already happening at the grassroots in Stroud with plans afoot for similar initiatives in other constituencies.

The deliberative, direct and democratic system this would usher in would make it far more difficult, maybe even impossible, for donors to have an influence over policy.

Want more privatisation of the NHS because of the juicy contracts your company can hoover up? Well, you could bung a few million to either or both main parties but who knows if privatisation would even be approved following a year’s worth of nationwide deliberation and decision-making by the voters. 

Expecting a left-leaning Labour government to finally roll back the trade union legislation of the Thatcher era to placate your threats to withdraw funding? Good luck. You’d do far better behaving like a grown-up and entering into the 650 conversations in constituencies about the issue before any vote in Parliament.

Of course, this doesn’t immediately answer the question of how parties would be funded but it does offer a route to kicking out the over-weaning influence of donors as well as the whips, party leaders and the media which the research tells us the public are not too keen on either.

The chances are that under such a system, parties probably would move towards Mark’s crowdfunding approach largely because the big donors would lose interest. In fact, parties themselves would almost certainly change radically to being looser associations of MPs with a shared agenda for discussion to take to the nation rather than a set of hard and fast policies to be whipped through parliament. All to the good, I feel.

But until such a constitutional shift is enacted, I can’t see the parties voluntarily resisting the seductive sight of a millionaire and a chequebook.


My book ‘Small is Powerful: Why the era of big business, big government and big culture is over’ is due for publication in late 2015. You can pre-order a copy here.


You can follow me on Twitter here: @adamjlent

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