Imagine your job is funded by a very wealthy individual who donates generously to your company. When the donor asks you for a favour, it’s obvious you’re going to agree.
Now imagine that your job is being prime minister, and you’re dining with the person who gave £500,000 to your party that year. Isn’t it obvious that you’re going to try to please them?
We cannot expect our politicians to remain uncorrupted and unrestricted by vested interests when they are meeting with the people funding their whole careers. This is why we need a change to the way in which political parties are funded.
Wealthy individuals can have access to politicians in a way that others can’t, simply because these are the people funding the parties. For instance, anyone who donates more than £50,000 to the Conservative party is invited to dine with David Cameron and other senior Conservative party figures, and this happens frequently. But why should it be that a donor’s vote is somehow worth more, or valued more, than anyone else’s? It shouldn’t, and removing financial incentives from politicians would enable them to better serve the interests of all their voters, not the select few.
This problem isn’t really even about the politicians themselves, because they don’t have much of a choice. In order to maintain financial support, politicians have to converse with their donors. However, it is inevitable that donors who have privileged access to politicians will have undue influence over them. There is no reason why the voice of an Oxford student should be heard any less than one of a FTSE 100 director. They should both have equal access and influence over their politicians.
Not only is this influence detrimental to politics itself, but it’s causing further scepticism towards politics, and of politicians in particular. The idea that politicians only act in the interests of their mates is hugely damaging. ‘Cash for influence’ scandals break out all the time; the sad thing is that the public no longer finds them surprising. Politics is viewed as corrupt and driven by the concerns of the wealthy elite – the people giving these donations. There is large scale public scepticism about the way political parties are funded and this needs to be put to an end.
Instead, we should have a system whereby the state funds political parties. Yes, I admit this would be pricey. But it would be worth it if politicians were then influenced by their voters, not by their donors.
Neither is this system unthinkably radical: Germany, for example, operates on a system whereby political parties receive state funding. In the election year of 2009, parties received a total of €128m of public money. A further €266m was raised through party membership and donations. While the problem of wealthy donors ‘buying’ favourable policies remains, a fundamental step forward has been made to create, at least at the start, a more level playing field and ensure every party has the funds to survive. This is a particularly interesting issue facing the UK parties who may have to consider the possibility of finding a way to fund a second election campaign in a matter of months, should a government not be formed after the General Election in May.
Realistically, David Cameron is not going to implement policies which harm Trailfinders, whose founder Michael D Gooley gave the party £500,000. That is how a donor’s influence can be a dangerous one when it comes to politics. There is simply no way that politicians aren’t influenced by who gives them money, especially if they’re meeting regularly at dinner parties.
Moving to a system whereby political parties are funded by the state and not the public would not solve these profound problems overnight, but it would definitely be a start. Parties being just as accountable to the poor as they are to the rich and when every vote is weighed equally in making policies: this is a world in which the public care about politics and actually – dare I dream it – have a deserved influence over politics.
The Electoral Reform Society said in February that party funding was in ‘urgent need’ of reform and that Parliament must tackle the issue “or else the scandals will just keep coming”. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg recently called for all parties to agree to ‘clean up party funding…once and for all’; while Green party leader Natalie Bennett stated we need to “cut the rot of vested interests from our politics” and Labour MP Graham Allen called for urgent progress on party funding reform.
Let’s hope that these voices aren’t drowned out by the people who gave £65.6 million to political parties in 2014. Maybe after the election in 2015, there will be a change which could mean an end to ‘cash for influence’ in politics.