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Is it time to rethink party funding?
Voters of Great Britain: the Greens need a (few) grand. Caroline Lucas has released a crowdfunding campaign, the jist of which is that – although Caroline Lucas increased her majority by 7,278 in Brighton Pavilion – the overall Green vote share went down in the 2017 election. Because of this they have been left out of pocket due to a decrease in a (publicly financed) parliamentary grant known as Short Money.
Short Money, introduced in 1975, is given to all opposition parties. Though, the same rules do not apply for a confidence and supply agreement. It is earmarked as funding for: carrying out parliamentary business, travel and associated expenses and the running costs of the Leader of the Opposition’s office.
In 2017 Short Money was calculated at a rate of £17,209.01 per year for every MP, with an additional £34.37 for every 200 votes said party received in the previous general election. Therefore at a rough calculation (on the 2017 formula) Caroline Lucas is £108,642.72 down from 2016 (£216,147.73).
Although Short Money is (partly) designed to offset the governing advantage a party might have, it doesn’t (and can’t) offset the financial advantage that the two largest parties have. Figure 1 shows that financially British politics is dominated by the Conservatives and Labour. The Greens are also, by some degree, the poorest party. Any hit, such as this, is a big one to the Green party coffers.
Figure 1 Total party income (Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, UKIP, Green, SNP) 2002-2015
The problem is that state finance is, to put it lightly, tricky. A balance must be struck between designing a system that creates a level electoral playing field, but that does not keep failed (and failing) parties afloat. Therefore, the idea of passing certain electoral thresholds to receive public support is a popular one In Western Europe, where parties generally enjoy considerably more support from the state. This is often set somewhere up to 5% of the vote (although in Denmark the threshold is as low as 0.03%).
The problem is that in a non-proportional system, not all votes are equal. For example, tactical voting may prevent parties from gaining a true aggregate level of support. The Greens themselves, with their focus on a progressive alliance, will have denied themselves a greater vote share. I do have my suspicions that the 2017 electoral pacts were more pragmatic than they were progressive. Perhaps the Greens simply couldn’t afford to stand candidates in as many constituencies so soon after the last election. The Cornish Nationalists couldn’t.
But parties, such as the Greens, surely shouldn’t have to go cap in hand with fundraisers every year just to function as an opposition. Whilst First Past the Post persists there is a case to calculate Short Money on more than raw vote share at a national election. Perhaps (as a starter for ten) it could be based on an (even more complicated) formula which includes local and devolved elections and, even, membership (parliamentary administrators – you’re welcome!).
The (initial) crowdfunding campaign was successful. The problem for the Greens is that the pattern of donations to all political parties is cyclical. You get plenty in an election year and struggle in the fallow years (though the way things are going, when the next fallow year occurs is anyone’s guess). As Justin Fisher is wont to point out: it’s very easy to solicit donations to keep the Tories out, it’s considerably harder to solicit donations to fix the photocopier.
This campaign is reminiscent of other recent innovations in the funding of British politics. There is Crowdpac, which advertises itself as a ‘platform for better democracy’ and includes a feature from which you can crowdfund a political campaign. More United is similar, though more overtly ideological. Their aim is to be a crowdfunding platform for candidates of any party that share their values.
The problem is that these ideas are often imported from the USA where the party system is a completely different beast. Over the pond parties are largely machines of elections. In Great Britain political parties’ funding needs are constant, they need money come rain or shine. And they break a lot of photocopiers. Indeed, over the last 15 years campaign expenditure has always run below other costs (see figure 2).
Figure 2 Total party expenditure (Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat) 2002-2015
The Green party crowdfunding campaign has, therefore, brought a wider issue to light than the mere intricacies of Short Money. It highlights a key issue with the current way in which we fund politics – that sustainability is a real problem in a system of voluntary funding. Just in case parliament hasn’t got enough on its hands, perhaps it might be time for a rethink of more than just Short Money.
Sam Power is is a doctoral researcher and Associate Tutor in the Politics Department at the University of Sussex and is affiliated with the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption (SCSC). His research focuses on party funding regimes, institutions and corruption. He tweets @sampower.