When money in politics is a good thing

Under first past the post some votes are clearly worth much more than others. Our political parties know this - that's why they spend up to 22 times as much money chasing some votes as others. If democracy requires all votes be equal, why do we tolerate this?

Will Brett
22 August 2013

Flickr/conservativeparty. Some rights reserved.

The relationship between money and democratic politics has always been a fraught one. In Britain all the way up until 1918, the franchise was reserved for the property-owning classes. In 1912, the Marconi Scandal rocked British politics as senior members of the government were accused of profiting financially from their prior knowledge of policy. Nowadays, a year rarely goes by without some form of money-related scandal dominating the political agenda. Earlier this summer there was a series of newspaper stings embarrassing various peers and MPs over ‘cash for influence’. And a few years ago, of course, there was the expenses scandal.

Usually the involvement of money in democratic politics is a sign that there is something fishy going on. But this rule does not hold universally. After all, parties spend money campaigning to attract votes, and this has some undeniably positive outcomes.

A new Electoral Reform Society report, Penny for your Vote?, analyses campaign expenditure across the UK in the general election of 2010. One of the key findings is that the amount spent on campaigning by candidates has a direct impact on the likelihood that people will turn up at the polling station. The more money spent, the more people vote. So money in politics is not always a bad thing.

However, if we look at where that money is spent, the picture is not so positive. Our analysis found that votes in Bootle, Merseyside, were effectively valued 22 times less than those in Luton South, Bedfordshire. This huge discrepancy demonstrates the inequity of our outdated electoral system. When some votes are worth 14p each to the parties and others are worth £3.07, surely all votes are not, after all, created equal.

Parties understandably target their scarce resources on battleground seats, where a well-funded campaign might make all the difference. They do not pour money into seats where they have no chance, or where they are certain to win. This means that voters in ultra-safe seats like Bootle (Labour majority of over 21,000 in 2010) are effectively ignored by the parties, while those in marginal and high-profile seats like Luton South are bombarded with attention.

It has long been known that targeting takes place, and that our first-past-the-post system creates a much larger number of ‘safe seats’ than alternative electoral systems. But when these facts are given a numerical cash value, the problem appears at its starkest. Do we really want some votes to have 22 times more cash spent on them than others? Is that a sign of a healthy democracy in which all votes are considered equal?

There are two factors driving this inequity. The first is the shambolic way in which political parties are currently funded. With the parties relying increasingly on big donors (of the individual, corporate or union-based variety) rather than members, their income stream has become fragile and volatile. The logic of targeting marginal seats becomes all the more merciless when parties are in a spending arms race with their opponents, and when they cannot be sure how much cash they will have next year.

The second factor is our ancient, creaking voting system. Even if parties had a stable and generous income, they would still be driven to target the most marginal seats. A fairer voting system would not stop parties from using their resources wisely and strategically. But it would create a greater incentive to spread resources more widely, as more contests become winnable for more parties.

It may be uncomfortable to think about the positive role which money can play in our politics. But when cash equates to party activists knocking on doors and the people who seek to represent us actually trying to make contact with us, we should not be so squeamish. A more sustainable party funding system and a fairer voting system would mean that campaigning expenditure would be more evenly distributed across Britain. That way, votes would come closer to being equal in reality, and not just in theory.

Read the full report here.

Find out how much your vote is worth here.


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