openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Want to take big money out of British politics? Here’s how

We know that big donors buy access. What’s the solution? Put the public in charge

Paul Evans
7 September 2021, 12.01am
Money maintains a hold on UK politics
eye35.pix / Alamy Stock Photo

This week British MPs are debating whether to change election laws. But instead of tackling the influence of dark money in politics, the government’s Elections Bill will cement its grip on power.

So what’s the alternative? Even Conservative Party elites are beginning to realise that the rules over political funding need to change, to prevent allegations of ‘cash for access’.

Last month, a major Tory donor, Mohamed Amersi, called for a cap on the amount of money people can donate to political parties – to stop them from expecting “something in return”. Amersi suggested that donations could be limited to around £25,000 per year, because giving millions can mean “you can feel that you can dictate things”.

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But imagine if donations were capped at just £50, with political parties offering a standard, flat membership package. Imagine that this fee didn’t make the donor any poorer – it could be 100% tax deductible, or claimable from welfare payments. All further political donations would be tightly capped and would have to be published.

This would give us a form of citizen finance for political parties that largely removes big donors from the picture

What would the political parties that emerge from this idea look like?

Firstly, politicians would be knocking on every door, making all the noises needed to get people to sign up. With the resulting levels of membership, parties wouldn’t be dependent on donations. They would probably not even solicit them. Our current political culture – a client of a privatised public sphere – would find its dirty and dark money diluted to a homeopathic trace.

This new form of political funding would reshape political incentives at a local level

The larger, more successful parties would be less dominated by political obsessives. They would instead be a more professional alliance of a diverse set of interests designed to compete for power. We could expect them to be more responsive to materialist concerns and less interested in performative, posturing politics.

The old compact of party membership – a transactional stakeholder role where we pay subs and knock doors in return for influence over policy – would wither quite quickly.

A new kind of activism

Political activists have often portrayed themselves as a democratic asset. They are, supposedly, a counterweight to the ideas that dominate a largely privatised public sphere. They pound pavements and push leaflets promoting other ideas than the ones that are capitalised by wealthy interests. But what do they give us instead?

They give us the ideas of another minority – the time-wealthy, or the people who can afford to volunteer to promote their own arguments and obsessions. Like lobbyists, activists also disenfranchise the rest of us. 

And even when they don’t, democrats who continue to invest their hopes in activism are doomed to endless defeat. In comparison to good, purposeful parliamentary politics, the prospects of sustained success from activists are tiny. In a fight between a crowd of placard-wavers and a slick, well-funded campaign, the smart money is on the lobbyists most of the time. To challenge the arguments that have been honed by professional think tanks, given momentum by expensive media management, and turned into legislation by pricey lobbyists and their client politicians, we need to shift the financial balance of electoral politics decisively.

This new form of political funding would reshape political incentives at a local level. It would lead to activism helping to build democratic parties that are more concerned with giving ordinary voters a say over policy. It would allow political parties to form the policies that their funders want, not the ones their activists foist on them.

Activism would no longer sway policy and it could be reimagined as a vocation: facilitating participation and deliberation from voters, with party workers building good feedback loops that genuinely give voters a voice of their own. A political alternative to choosing from an electoral menu that we’ve had no part in drafting. 

Such parties would probably be a lot more professionalised and less reliant on voluntary activity anyway, so this isn’t as unlikely a proposition as it may seem at first. By marginalising money-driven politics, this proposal has the potential to transform the focus of politics – to bring the concerns of all voters to the fore and not just the fixations of lobbyists and/or political busybodies. 

It can turn our increasingly dysfunctional, cash-tainted political culture into one that is both attractive and inclusive at a stroke. It’s a win-win proposal for democrats everywhere. Who’s in?

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