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Political loans fuel funding row

Tim Porter looks back on research that pre-empted the current debate over who should fund political parties

The current ‘loans for peerages’ row has reopened the wider issue of who should foot the bill for the funding of political parties.

Some two years back, the Electoral Commission asked Cragg Ross Dawson to take an in-depth look at this same area. We talked to members of the public and activists in political parties, large and small. Our research suggested that there was considerable public support for increasing state funding to a level where political parties were wholly or mainly funded by the State, though the issues needed careful explanation before people came to a view.

As a topic, many had not even considered it before. They were often ill-informed about basic aspects of the political process, how the parties are funded, how they spend their money and why this might be important. And they had a limited grasp of the extent to which sleaze can influence the political agenda, though fast-forward to 2006 and that may have changed.

Participation in the research gave people an opportunity to learn about and debate the issues around party funding. Out of this emerged a hope that increasing state funding, in combination with restricting the size and type of donations, would create a more transparent, accountable and responsive system.

It was seen as a way of eliminating the opportunity for wealthy donors to influence political decision-making, and there were signs that it might make people feel more positively about politics. This was as long as any new system of funding brought about a real change in the way politics is conducted. People also saw the possibility of creating a system in which smaller parties would have access to resources which would allow them to compete on a more equal basis with the major parties. They envisaged that, with more parties able to get their message across, politicians would be forced to listen and respond to what real people, and not wealthy donors, are saying.

A small but vociferous minority were strongly opposed to changing the current system of funding. They felt that it was as ‘clean’ as it could be, especially with a requirement to declare donations now in place. Others simply refused to accept that political parties are worthy recipients of our tax money.

Party activists made for another story altogether but, almost without exception, they expected the public to oppose increased state funding because it would mean increased taxation. This made them wary of voicing support for the measure.

Given the message from the groups with the general public, this seems to have been a serious misreading of the public mood over both tax and the problem of sleaze

 

Tim Porter
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2006