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Party funding: the people speak

Yesterday the Committee on Standards in Public Life published its report on party political funding. The recommendation that captured most media interest was for a  cap on donations over £10,000 with any shortfall in funding being made up by the state. The Committee suggested that this funding be tied to votes cast in a general election and be made available to any party with two or more MPs (analogous systems would also run in devolved and European Elections).

The main parties immediately rejected these proposals. Their arguments were varied but the main thrust was: this is an unjustified use of taxpayers’ money. Indeed, according to Nick Clegg, ‘The government believes that the case cannot be made for greater state funding of political parties at a time when budgets are being squeezed and economic recovery remains the highest priority’.

But do the public agree with Nick? As part of the Committee’s evidence gathering, I, with others, analysed three sets of data about public opinion of party funding. The full report is here. The headline findings from this research do not necessarily make happy reading for those who favour the status quo.

An overwhelming majority of the public think that the most common reason for people to donate in excess of £100,000 is self-serving (i.e. the money is given in the  hope of being given special favours or more access to decision-makers). Across the three surveys, never more than 16% thought that the most common reason for making large donations was that the donor actually believed in what the party was doing. Similarly, an overwhelming majority thought that politicians often or sometimes performed special favours for donors; whilst a clear majority thought politicians based their decisions on donors’ wishes.

The Committee on Standards’ report was a response to these concerns and in July we assessed how the public would react to them. In order to get more considered answers, we asked this detailed question:

To avoid large donors being able to get favours or influence decisions by Members of Parliament, political parties could be banned from accepting large donations and receive some funding from the state to make sure they could still operate. If state funding replaced donations larger than £10,000, this would amount to a subsidy of approximately 64p a year for every registered voter, which would add up to about £29 million for all parties together. To what extent would you agree or disagree with such funding in principle?

This gets to the heart of the issue – how do the public react to the suggestion when it is spelled out in a fuller context. The results are interesting, and suggest that the more simplistic ‘taxpayers vs government’ line does not hold for all the public. Of those asked the question:

Completely Agree: 12.5%

Agree: 27.5%

Neither Agree nor Disagree: 17.2%

Disagree: 14.7%

Completely Disagree: 15.1%

Don’t Know: 13%

A plurality – if not a majority – of people (40%) appear to favour the Committee’s proposal, the one rejected by Nick Clegg and other politicians. Whilst there are inherent uncertainties with any survey, the results clearly raise doubts that all taxpayers dislike the proposal.

Despite the main parties’ attempts to close down the debate, there consequently remains significant room for a much fuller public discussion about how we should fund our politics.

Jonathan Rose

Published inBritish Politics

9 Comments

  1. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    I strongly suspect that this is a case of Joe and Jo Public wanting their cake and eating it. They don’t want large donors to have influence, either in terms of access or, even worse, in terms of policy – on the other hand, they don’t want to see their taxes going to political parties. Indeed, I wonder how many MPs believe that even the “Short money” would survive a referendum.

    Perhaps it would have been better if CoSiPL had started from the other end and asked: how much should the political process cost? International comparisons might be of interest here, too.

  2. Jonathan Rose Jonathan Rose

    Mike, I think there is some of the ‘wanting their cake and eating it’ too. I suspect that would lead to similarly impossible suggestions if you asked how much the process ought to cost – i.e. most people would say something close to £0.
    That’s actually why I really liked the question we were able to ask – I think we did a pretty good job of giving both sides: If you want big money out, you’ll have to pay. It doesn’t even cost that much extra either, so I think that’s probably an important factor too.

    I also agree about the short money.
    It’s actually something I saw Nick Clegg talking about shortly after the election – how there was already massive state funding, so it didn’t make sense to rule out state funding on a simple ‘taxpayers won’t like it’ line.

  3. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    I take your point, Jonathan, and in return will raise a different one. Your question (and indeed almost all opinion poll questions) does not ask people how salient the issue is to them. It may be that of the 40% in favour that you found, few if any feel strongly about the issue, whilst a significant proportion of the 30% against do have strong feelings. (If you like, this the “cake and eat it” notion recast in another way.)

    Of course this problem applies in principle to all political questions. (Perhaps the abortion debate exemplifies it as well as any.) Maybe it is discussed in the blogs of PolSci departments elsewhere, but if not it might make a good subject for a future post here.

    • Jonathan Rose Jonathan Rose

      Hi Mike,

      Interesting question. I thought I’d run through the conditional distributions to see on that.

      For those people who said party funding was ‘an issue of great importance’ (422 people), the distribution was:

      Completely Agree: 25.2%
      Agree: 33.6%
      Neither agree nor disagree: 14.1%
      Disagree: 9.4%
      Completely disagree: 13%
      Don’t Know: 7.8%

      For those who said the issue was of ‘some importance’ (996 people), we had:

      Completely Agree: 9.8%
      Agree: 29.9%
      Neither agree nor disagree: 20.9%
      Disagree: 20.3%
      Completely disagree: 13.5%
      Don’t Know: 12.3%

      For those who said the issue was of ‘very little importance’ (329 people), we had:

      Completely Agree: 7.9%
      Agree: 14.5%
      Neither agree nor disagree: 19%
      Disagree: 12.2%
      Completely disagree: 26.2%
      Don’t Know: 20.2%

      So there is an element that the people who are most concerned about it are most willing to pay – which isn’t a surprise. I think we can probably take concern in this regard as an indicator of salience, although what would be better is if we had ranked data against other issues, so we could see relative to other things how important it was.

      Interestingly, the majority in favour of agree holds even for those who only think it is of ‘some importance’ (who are the biggest group) – although all the while you retain a lot of people who either don’t really have a preference, or don’t know.

  4. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    Many thanks, Jonathan.

    I wonder how many other issues would show similar splits!

  5. Richard Wing Richard Wing

    “A majority – if not a plurality – of people”. Surely the other way round.

    • Well spotted. We occasionally put in deliberate mistakes to check that people are paying attention.

  6. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    That joke was tired when I was a boy…

    • I call it my Captain Mainwairing Defence of Incompetence. Older readers may get the reference.

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