Money, politics and how to miss the point…..

Reformers of various hues are all-a-twitter about the possibility that Ed Miliband will support a cap on individual donations to political parties. Leaving aside the implications for the trade union link which are fundamentally undemocratic and an assault on this Party’s heritage, the problem with this is once again our glorious leader is supporting a reform that will result in the substantive total of nothing; indeed, there more than a little truth to charges made by our opponents that these reforms are ‘presentational’.

The problem is this; capping donations does not, I repeat, does not, reduce the power of money in politics in any way, shape or form. You need only look ‘across the pond’ to the good ol’ US of A to prove that point. In North America a complex system of caps and regulations exist when it comes to campaign spending (helpfully laid out here) but is anybody seriously going to come on this blog and tell me money matters less in US politics? Indeed, things like primaries (with there vast demand of campaigning resources) actually afford money more power if anything as opposed to less.

Here is one of the problems with capping donations; if you don’t tackle the actual costs of campaigning you can cap away all you like. All you may well succeed in doing is driving some parties out of business and thus * further emasculation* of democracy by denying their supporters a voice. This gives us a clue as to where the problem lies and that is the very foundations and structures of a representative democracy. Campaigning to represent people will invariably cost a bomb in a commodity driven system, especially when there is no accompanying regulation of the price of things, because you will be expected during the course of a campaign to make some form of contact with a handsome amount of those people you wish to represent to be successful.

This is why open primaries make matters worse because by increasing the size of the so-called ‘electoral universe’ you increase the costs of campaigning within it. Open primaries are therefore anti-democratic and exclusionary to those on lower incomes and means especially. They also hamper the growth of minority trends, not encourage them to flourish; this is apart from the very prospect they can be manipulated much more easily in an undemocratic way.

Caps are therefore wrong as a point of democratic principle. If there were measures alongside them to reduce the costs of campaigning then this would make them slightly more palatable but even then the fundamental truth would not be altered  that money will always have substantial power in politics while we live in the kind of society we do. The implication of caps; that they can make politics somehow cleaner is totally bogus hokum. It’s simply an illusion to conceal the real roots of the problem.

If we want to undermine the power of money within politics there is little that can be done short of moving away from the entire notion that representative democracy is the highest form of democracy. It isn’t. It’s the farthest we have got so far along the democratic path but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a long road ahead.  Pretending to people that donation caps solve anything is fundamentally a lie and that is another good  reason amoung many to oppose Mr Miliband’s suggestions.


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About darrellgoodliffe


4 responses to “Money, politics and how to miss the point…..”

  1. Stephen W says :

    I sympathise with your viewpoint but you’ve kind of got the wrong end of the stick.

    We already have caps on spending by political parties in this country, unlike America. So there is no problem with the scale of spending, that is already limited.

    What this is meant to achieve is not to cut the money spent on politics, but to cut the dependence of large parties on a few large donors, and thus reduce the fear and impression that our major political parties are too reliant on a few large donors who may be effectively buying influence, whether big unions or big business.

    Hence a cap at a sensible level, like Cameron’s £50,000 suggestion, would be a decent solution to this problem.


  2. darrellgoodliffe says :


    All of which shows the ineffectiveness of caps then surely? Is it not also the case that your assessment of America is completely wrong. Caps most certainly do exist there and it is simply wrong to say they dont.

    No, that is not the point. What your proposing is cosmetic surgery to avoid the impression of money dominating politics while in fact doing nothing to change the fact it does. Small donors will still expect possibly something in return. It isnt the size of donations that is the problem at all its the dependancy on large amounts of money to be able function.

    It would be a presentational solution that would change nothing. It simply doesnt apply in the case of the unions because their donations represent a collective donation on behalf of tens of thousands or even millions in the case of a large union like Unite. It would be so easy to get round this pathetic ‘cap’; the amounts would just be sent in smaller parcels, not reduced, if it was a trade union by individual trade unionists and if it was a company by employees asked to donate on behalf of the owner. Like I said, cosmetic surgery….


  3. Stephen W says :

    Uhm. Not quite, as there is a difference between a cap on the amount a certain individual can donate and the a cap on the amount political parties can spend.

    The problem in America is that numerous organisations circumvent whatever caps they have on donations to produce massive expenditure. Something like $5 billion was spent on the 2010 elections.

    In this country we don’t have that problem as there are limits on expenditure, political tv ads are banned (this accounts for more than half the money spent in the US) and there is just not the culture of interest groups spending vast amount of money to lobby on behalf of political parties. All the parties together spent less than £50 million on the general election.

    The caps proposed by Cameron and Miliband are not meant to bring down the cost of politics. They are meant to tackle the entirely separate problem of the perception of political parties being in hock to a few large donors. And a cap will solve this problem. It is feasible that half a dozen big donors may be buying favours and influence. It is less conceivable that thousands of donors would be doing the same thing through sheer practicalities. (How would they agree on or co-ordinate requests for a start)

    If you claim that the real problem in politics is that it costs a significant amount of money at all, that is a different problem. But I can’t see how anyone could ever make politics cheap or free? Leafletting, postering, buying advertising, hiring campaign teams, co-ordinating media and policy announcements etc across an entire country, necessary to engage the voters, costs money and always will.


  4. darrellgoodliffe says :


    Which is exactly what would happen here and exactly why caps are pointless. TV adverts may be banned but there is plenty of other cost like billboard space etc which bumps up the cost of campaigning nicely.

    I know they are not and that is one of the main reasons they are pointless and unsupportable. As they do not they are actually a menace to democracy by threatening smaller parties with financial extinction still. Indeed, they tackle a perception and try and change that rather than the reality which is my entire point and why they are deceitful towards the electorate.

    Quite easily one would imagine. You really do underestimate the potential of people for co-operation especially in this day and age of lightening fast communications potential. If your question made any sense then how do campaigns happen; your once again caught in a trap set by your own position really of trying to make actually existing reality seem like its some far-off fantasy land. What you describe happens day-by-day in the real world which have nothing to do with peoples perceptions.

    State could entitle certain provision; force its free provision is one option. However, all your doing now is alluding to the problem I mention at great length in this post. Ultimately the problem is with the whole structure of representative democracy in its entirety and the only real lasting solution to this problem is to move beyond that


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