Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A silver bullet for party funding scandals?

Salon has picked up (hat tip: election law blog) the ideas of Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres on how to clean up campaign financing in the US, and from their report you wpuld have thought they had discovered a silver bullet for solving party funding scandals.

Ackerman and Ayres have made two basic propositions:

1) That every voter should be given a voucher for $50 that they can split between as many election candidates as they choose. This would put an estimated extra $6 billion into play in any one election cycle, substantially diluting the ability of the wealthy and businesses to buy the votes of congressmen.

2) That all campaign finance donations should be made anonymously, so that candidates don't know who had given to their campaign and so can't be beholden to them. They point to the fact that the secret ballot has virtually eliminated the buying of votes.

Now superficially these both sound attractive ideas, and anything that ends the endless (and usually groundless) accusations of Government favouritism and selling of honours to donors that clog up the media and add to the cynicism of the public must be worth looking at. However I think both ideas are fundamentally flawed.

Idea 1) is perhaps, in theory, likely to be even more effective over this side of the pond than in the US. Given the relatively minuscule amounts of money our parties have to raise (the £15m or so limit on what any one party can spend in a general election wouldn't buy you more than a couple of House seats in the US) it would only take vouchers of a few pounds per voter before the market for donations was totally swamped. I would also favour this idea (which is hardly new) to the alternative state funding model of doling out money to parties based on their past performance at general elections as that would tend to freeze the current party system in place. Voucher funding would also mean that parties would have an incentive to try and attract the support of as many people as possible not just the few swing voters in marginals who decide elections.

However, despite being an elegant solution in theory I fear that vouchers would run into a wall of voter cynicism and the current vogue for anti-politics, and therefore at the moment is a non-starter.

The idea of anonymous donations is more obviously flawed. The idea is based on the presumption that if a Prime Minister cannot be sure if a certain individual has actually made the donation they pledged because it has to go through the Electoral Commission where it is jumbled up with all the other money being given to the party they will be much less likely to grant them favours. However, there is a simple problem with this receipts. One would assume that the Electoral Commission would have to acknowledge your donation, so donors would be waving receipts in MPs faces rather than cheques when they come to lobby them for their vote. These of course would remain a matter of public record unlike an individuals vote in an election.

So it seems that in fact, that as with most policy problems, there isn't a silver bullet to solve the problem of funding elections.

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