Wednesday, 4 April 2012

When is campaign finance undemocratic?

That the recent cash for access scandal that has hit Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative party has put campaign finance back on the agenda is certainly a good thing. Yet I worry about the current focus of the debate. Most people seem to be under the impression that the major problem with the current system is that single individuals or organisations contribute too much, and therefore wield too much influence. However, I think it is at least as worrying that there are such great disparities between the resources of the different parties. In the 2010 British general election, the Conservatives spent twice as much money Labour, and enjoyed over three times the budget of the Liberal Democrats. Unsurprisingly, there is a strong correlation between how much a party spends and its electoral performance. It has been estimated that an extra £2.25 of electoral spending corresponds to an additional vote. If this is correct, then the £8 million more that the Conservatives spent than Labour were worth over 3 million votes to them. Since the Conservatives received just over 2 million more votes than Labour at the election, this implies that their vote share could even have been less than Labour’s had there been a level financial playing field.

These calculations are a bit sketchy, but the point I am trying to make should be clear enough: there is significant inequality of wealth between parties, and this almost certainly influences electoral results. This seems fundamentally undemocratic. The idea of ‘one person, one vote’ is often taken to be essential to democracy. Yet for a donation of as little as £2.25, a person can effectively double their political influence – voting once themselves, and basically buying a second vote.

Obviously this ‘multiple voting’ is more heinous in the case of larger donations where more votes are ‘bought’. But the argument applies in the same way to the ordinary trade union members whose support Labour keep stressing. The implication of the argument is that all privately funding of political parties is undemocratic.

Yet funding electoral campaigns is clearly not the same as straightforwardly buying votes. The voters who are influenced by it still get to freely choose who to vote for. Campaign spending may be a way of deploying one’s resources so as to alter people’s voting intentions. But the same could be said of rational persuasion, and it is very hard to argue that that is undemocratic. We do not think that it is undemocratic ever to try to influence others, that democracy requires us to leave voters to make up their minds alone. On the contrary, better informing fellow citizens of their options is seen as a democratic virtue.

So how, if at all, is spending money different from other forms of political campaigning? I think the intuition which explains the unease that people like me have with the role of money in politics is expressed by Jurgen Habermas’ claim that democracy requires the “force of the better argument” to prevail. This is doubtless idealistic, since elections are influenced by any number of factors which have nothing to do with the arguments: personalities, tribal loyalties etc. But it is a regulative ideal: the more that elections are decided by arguments, the more democratic the political system is; the more that other influences intrude, the less democratic it becomes. If campaign spending becomes a more significant determinant of electoral success, this moves us away from democracy.

A certain level of campaign spending brings us closer to the ideal of elections decided by arguments. If parties could not spend, they would be unable to publicise their message, and the electorate would be relatively uninformed. However, this beneficial effect is counterbalanced by the malign effect of uneven electoral spending: if some parties have far more money than others, then they are likely to do better regardless of the success of their arguments. This implies that it might be better to have a relatively ignorant electorate, as long as they are equally ignorant about all parties.

This would seem to be a case for the public funding of parties, since this would ensure that voters are (a) better informed, but also (b) not much more informed about some parties than others. However, it would also seem to have other radical implications. If parties are to triumph only by the force of their better arguments, then this means that they cannot base their success on more enthusiastic grassroots volunteers. It seems like the use of volunteers by political parties for canvassing and leafleting is subject to the same trade-off as their spending of money: more is better, but only if it is evenly spread. Yet the implication of this thought is that there should be limits on the use of volunteers. This seems like an even more puzzling paradox than campaign spending. On the one hand, it seems undemocratic to prevent people volunteering their time and efforts to promote a political cause. Yet on the other hand, it seems undemocratic for the party with the most loyal volunteers to win on that basis alone. Have I gone wrong somewhere?


  1. What about if every adult in the country was given a quid to give to any party they wanted (if they wanted)? That would be equivalent to state funding of up to £45 million or so. The tories have double the funding of Labour because they wealthy know which side their bread is buttered. (It is, of course, pretty thickly plastered on the other side too.) So this would reduce the ability of the rich to buy elections - and be a god-send for good-for-democracy smaller parties. If you gave everyone two quid it would quite seriously reduce vote-buying ability - and would also work as a kind of grafted-on system of proportional representation. People could donate it online or at the checkout in exchange for nectar points or something... why hasn't anyone suggested this idea before? What is the obvious problem I'm missing here?

  2. Danny, possibly you're missing the fact that the cost of administrating such a scheme would be substantial - or, if someone's Party Political Pound were mixed in with other payments from the government, the costs would be minimal but the impact likewise.

    My inclination would be to limit national spending - on posters, newspaper ads and similar - as I feel that is what has the most unfair impact.
    Equally a regulation (if it seems necessary) stating that canvassers and volunteers cannot be paid for their time or expenses.
    Then permit every party one item through the Royal Mail to all residential households in constituencies they are contesting. Based on the costs of Door to Door maildrops, that would come as an implicit subsidy of Royal Mail to the tune of £4-5 million (assuming 5 candidates in most constituencies, while representing equal access to the voting public.

    That wouldn't leave many outlets for major donation money; it would give truly popular parties a big advantage on the ground; and make sure that whether or not a canvasser gets to you, you get a little bit about each party in their own words.

  3. Danny – you’re certainly not alone, I’ve heard similar suggestions from others. It’s excellent idea, and if the administration is not too problematic (and I can see no real reason why it should be), then I think it should be done. 2 minor niggles: (1) would uptake be large and representative enough? (2) would it privilege established parties? I can imagine small parties like the Greens and UKIP being caught in a catch-22 scenario: they don’t get much funding because people are ill-informed about them, but they can’t inform them, because they don’t have the resources.

    Slow Learner – all of those proposals seem totally sensible, and major improvements on the status quo. However, I think my post has thrown up some problems that you do not engage with. You suggest that paid party workers are problematic, but that volunteers are not. Yet the argument I make would seem to suggest that using volunteers can distort the electoral process in the same way as spending money. Suppose that the Greens are fighting to win a Labour stronghold. The constituency is full of tribal, unquestioningly loyal Labour supporters, while the Greens have no such networks to fall back on. The foot soldiers that Labour can call upon give it a major advantage, regardless of the strength of its arguments, and this worries me.

  4. Aveek, I think I see things slightly differently here. I do feel that it is fairly crucial to cut the direct influence of money out of politics. What is happening in the US since Citizens United is a cautionary tale of where that can lead.
    However, I feel that to really engage with the electorate, you need at some point to have public hustings, go knocking on doors etc.
    The requirement to build a network of volunteers is likely to slow down the progress of a party with new or different ideas; but I am sure that it can be done, and if you don't need large-scale funding, a popular organisation could contest an election with the current major parties on a relative shoe-string and small donations from supporters.
    Given that in a democracy you end up needing to win round many of the voters, it does not strike me as a particularly distorting influence to allow popular parties an advantage in canvassing; it shouldn't take that many volunteers to cover one constituency. Equally I am not certain how to remove that factor without truly drastic measures, because even in student societies which purport to ban canvassing for elections, either it goes on behind the scenes, or the election devolves into a beauty contest (or, of course, both).
    To take your example, if the Greens can't get volunteers out, then they'll struggle in any case, because in a Labour stronghold a lot of the electorate will vote Labour out of habit without ever seeing a Labour canvasser or advert; and giving other parties equal time in media and other advertising is hardly going to change that. Only conversations with Green candidates and voters is going to have a chance of winning them round. I think that's an artefact of Labour (and Tory, and other) strongholds existing in the first place, not a problem with allowing volunteer canvassing.