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%
Neither Agree nor Disagree: 17.2%
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.