That the recent cash for access scandal that has hit Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative party has put campaign finance back on the agenda is certainly a good thing. Yet I worry about the current focus of the debate. Most people seem to be under the impression that the major problem with the current system is that single individuals or organisations contribute too much, and therefore wield too much influence. However, I think it is at least as worrying that there are such great disparities between the resources of the different parties. In the 2010 British general election, the Conservatives spent twice as much money Labour, and enjoyed over three times the budget of the Liberal Democrats. Unsurprisingly, there is a strong correlation between how much a party spends and its electoral performance. It has been estimated that an extra £2.25 of electoral spending corresponds to an additional vote. If this is correct, then the £8 million more that the Conservatives spent than Labour were worth over 3 million votes to them. Since the Conservatives received just over 2 million more votes than Labour at the election, this implies that their vote share could even have been less than Labour’s had there been a level financial playing field.
These calculations are a bit sketchy, but the point I am trying to make should be clear enough: there is significant inequality of wealth between parties, and this almost certainly influences electoral results. This seems fundamentally undemocratic. The idea of ‘one person, one vote’ is often taken to be essential to democracy. Yet for a donation of as little as £2.25, a person can effectively double their political influence – voting once themselves, and basically buying a second vote.
Obviously this ‘multiple voting’ is more heinous in the case of larger donations where more votes are ‘bought’. But the argument applies in the same way to the ordinary trade union members whose support Labour keep stressing. The implication of the argument is that all privately funding of political parties is undemocratic.
Yet funding electoral campaigns is clearly not the same as straightforwardly buying votes. The voters who are influenced by it still get to freely choose who to vote for. Campaign spending may be a way of deploying one’s resources so as to alter people’s voting intentions. But the same could be said of rational persuasion, and it is very hard to argue that that is undemocratic. We do not think that it is undemocratic ever to try to influence others, that democracy requires us to leave voters to make up their minds alone. On the contrary, better informing fellow citizens of their options is seen as a democratic virtue.
So how, if at all, is spending money different from other forms of political campaigning? I think the intuition which explains the unease that people like me have with the role of money in politics is expressed by Jurgen Habermas’ claim that democracy requires the “force of the better argument” to prevail. This is doubtless idealistic, since elections are influenced by any number of factors which have nothing to do with the arguments: personalities, tribal loyalties etc. But it is a regulative ideal: the more that elections are decided by arguments, the more democratic the political system is; the more that other influences intrude, the less democratic it becomes. If campaign spending becomes a more significant determinant of electoral success, this moves us away from democracy.
A certain level of campaign spending brings us closer to the ideal of elections decided by arguments. If parties could not spend, they would be unable to publicise their message, and the electorate would be relatively uninformed. However, this beneficial effect is counterbalanced by the malign effect of uneven electoral spending: if some parties have far more money than others, then they are likely to do better regardless of the success of their arguments. This implies that it might be better to have a relatively ignorant electorate, as long as they are equally ignorant about all parties.
This would seem to be a case for the public funding of parties, since this would ensure that voters are (a) better informed, but also (b) not much more informed about some parties than others. However, it would also seem to have other radical implications. If parties are to triumph only by the force of their better arguments, then this means that they cannot base their success on more enthusiastic grassroots volunteers. It seems like the use of volunteers by political parties for canvassing and leafleting is subject to the same trade-off as their spending of money: more is better, but only if it is evenly spread. Yet the implication of this thought is that there should be limits on the use of volunteers. This seems like an even more puzzling paradox than campaign spending. On the one hand, it seems undemocratic to prevent people volunteering their time and efforts to promote a political cause. Yet on the other hand, it seems undemocratic for the party with the most loyal volunteers to win on that basis alone. Have I gone wrong somewhere?