Last weekend news broke that stunned no one but the mainstream media that the Conservative Party tailor their policies to the needs of wealthy party donors. The Conservative Party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas was caught on film offering “premier league” access to the Prime Minister for a cool £250,000.
For years now Private Eye has been highlighting how the Conservative Party offer a range of ‘Donor Clubs’ granting differing levels of access to policy makers and the PM depending on the size of donation. Information about these shadowy secret clubs can be found hidden away on…the Conservative Party website. It’s understandable the mainstream media took so long to get on top of this highly elusive story.
In its bid to remain ‘balanced’, including at the cost of intellectual honesty, in its reports the BBC regularly highlighted the fact that while the Tories accept big money from wealthy individuals and large corporations, the Labour Party continue to be funded by the trade unions. The intellectual redundancy of this attempt to draw moral equivalence between money garnered from the wealthy and from democratic unions needs no further comment here, other than how symbolic it is of the BBC’s misunderstanding of its role to inform without bias.
Cameron has been very astute in publicly ‘reaching out’ to other parties to help reform party political funding. This he claims, must rely on Labour limiting funding from the trade unions. This is an excellent tactical move which puts the spotlight on Miliband and takes it off his own party. If such a reform were to take place, the Labour Party would seal its position as the British Democrats, a party of and for the wealthy alone.
However, can those of us on the Left offer a viable alternative to the current system? If we make a claim for state funding of political parties without detail, such an option will be easily knocked down by moneyed interests. We need concrete alternatives.
In his book ‘Envisioning Real Utopias’, US sociologist Erik Olin Wright details radical proposals for achieving democratic egalitarianism and socio-economic justice by drawing on purely theoretical and the more empirically grounded models. The book is a treasure trove of examples of what is currently possible and being achieved in some parts of the world, alongside more ambitious ideas which would require further finessing and real world democratisation before implementation. One idea Olin Wright discusses is the concept of a ‘democracy card’, developed by Bruce Ackermen which would allow for public funding of political parties in an innovative way;
“At the beginning of every year, every citizen would be given a special kind of debit card which Ackerman dubs a patriot card, but which I would prefer to call a democracy card. He proposes putting $50 on each card. In the US, with 220 million people above the age of eighteen, this would cost a total of roughly $11 billion per year. The funds on this card can be used exclusively for electoral campaigns: to contribute to a candidate for a specific electoral campaign or to a political party that participates in elections.
However- and this is the pivotal condition that makes this a radical egalitarian proposal – any candidate or party accepting funds from democracy cards cannot accept funds from any other source. But why should candidates and parties opt for this restriction? Why not still court the fat cats and rely on private funding? There are two reasons for this; First, if the funding level of the democracy cards is sufficiently high, it will swamp other sources of funding. There will simply be much more money to be had through the democracy card “political market” for funding than private funding market, and since the two sources of funding cannot be mixed, most candidates will find it advantageous to raise funds from voters. Second, once the system is in place and becomes part of the normative order of political life, the use of private funding itself is likely to become a political issue. Candidates who rely on the democratic mechanism of seeking funding from equally endowed citizens will have a potent weapon to raise against candidates who seek funding from corporations and wealthy individuals…”
- Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias p168-9.
Wright goes on to detail how fraud in the system would be countered, the electoral process involved (a split between a first stage involving parties recruiting democracy card money from citizens and a second stage where the funds are spent in the election) and the effect the system would have on citizen participation in elections and corporate control of the democratic process. Considering the scheme would likely cost $11bn to cover the entire US citizenry, we could probably cover everyone in the UK for a third of that cost. Or, we can stage the corporate feeding frenzy that is the London Olympics…for two weeks.