The financing of politics – corrupt, whichever way you look at it?

Sam Power, an ESRC-funded PhD student at the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption, ponders the challenge of crafting a corruption-free party funding regime. No easy task …

Tuesday 18th September saw Transparency International and the Political Studies Association host a symposium entitled ‘Corruption with Research Impact’. The event also marked the launch of a new PSA specialist group on Corruption and Political Misconduct. The event covered some interesting and at times difficult territory; what can practitioners legitimately expect from academics in terms of policy- (and in this case corruption) relevant research? What (in terms of data and access, for example) can academics expect from practitioners? Tricky questions. The first panel of the day involved a discussion by leading academics that gave an overview of research being done on corruption and integrity in Britain today. Dr. Liz Dávid-Barrett (a recent signing by the SCSC, incidentally) argued that one of the key areas that future research should focus on was institutional corruption, and that one key part of this mosaic is corruption in party finance. Indeed, she suggested that academics should be engaging with questions such as is party finance inevitably corrupt? Now since that question is very much in my own particular academic wheelhouse, I thought it might make sense to discuss some of the key themes and challenges that the question presents. In a previous post, I outlined problems with the funding of politics and tackling corruption, so I’ll try my level best not to ‘double-dip’ on any of the points made then.

The first thing to note is a simple inevitability – for parties to survive they need to be funded. It can be privately, it can be publicly or it can be a mixture of the two, but there is a need for some sort of funding regime. The main reason for this is that, in an almost uniformly Europe-wide trend, party membership is falling to such a level that parties simply cannot raise the revenue to be self-sufficient (see here for more on this). Previously, I outlined the fact that many advanced democracies adopt a system of state funding, because of the (in my view under-researched) belief that it represents a necessarily less corrupt form of party finance. Further, that what is more important is the kind of corruption challenge that state funding represents and if it is (as I suspect) a different corruption challenge than that posed by private funding. Measuring levels of corruption can only get us so far, at some point there needs to be a distinction between types. Which brings us back to the question at hand, if neither state nor private funding are able to deliver corruption-free party finance, then surely party finance itself is inevitably corrupt. So what is to be done?

Firstly, and importantly, expecting anything – let alone party finance – to be ‘corruption-free’ is wishful thinking of the highest order. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between the notion that party finance is inevitably corrupt because politicians are all lying, cheating, snout-in-the-trough, self-serving scumbags, or what Matthew Flinders (more eloquently) calls the ‘bad faith model of politics’ and a competing, more realistic, argument that party finance is inevitably corrupt, but on the whole politicians do not abuse power, and are honest people performing a vital public service. This does not mean, as Flinders rightly notes, that we should ‘dismiss valid concerns regarding the operation of democratic politics or the behaviour of some politicians; but it is to place these concerns in context in an attempt to foster a more balanced debate’. This distinction is key. Accepting the premise that party finance is inevitably corrupt does not necessarily entail holding a negative view of politicians and the political elite, it merely involves facing up to the fact that certain corruption challenges are inevitable.

This runs parallel to a second important consideration that when it comes to corruption, public perceptions matter and are often unrealistic. As Flinders argued in a previous article, there is an ‘expectations gap’ – the difference between what is demanded, and what can realistically be achieved. Further to this point, Jennifer van Heerde-Hudson and Justin Fisher use data (see here) generated from YouGov’s online panel to show that the public has little knowledge of the British party funding regime, that this ignorance was no barrier to hostility towards the system and that attitudes to party finance broadly fall into two camps – those that are ‘anti-party finance’ (parties, and by extension politicians, are inherently corrupt and waste money) and ‘reformers’ (those that feel the existing party funding regime is unsatisfactory, but support further reform). The headline finding is that the British public ‘knows little of party finance and, consequently, public opinion is unlikely to offer a rational course of action for effective reform’.

The argument here is not that the public should never be consulted about potential change, or that the public does not understand politics, it is more that public opinion should not serve as a gatekeeper, at least in terms of party finance reform. As van Heerde-Hudson and Fisher highlight, the only acceptable party funding regime according to public opinion is one that is entirely funded by membership subscriptions – a system that never really existed in the Britain and, as previously mentioned, is simply unworkable. This also serves to further show the damage that the ‘bad faith model of politics’ can have on the effective working of the political process and, perhaps explain, the gulf that their seems to be between the ‘public’ and ‘politicians’. The ‘bad faith model of politics’ damages people’s perceptions of political institutions and can cause the public to see everything as corrupt. In terms of party finance, this leads to little or no distinction between what can be considered a corrupt or legitimate exchange and corruption, it would appear, is seen to be everywhere.

To return to the question that Liz David-Barrett posited on 18 September, is party finance inevitably corrupt? Well, yes. However, this argument should not be considered a value judgement on politicians or the political process in this country. It should be understood as an acceptance that any system of party finance presents unique corruption challenges. By dismissing politicians themselves as inevitably corrupt, we not only do them a disservice but damage the potential for significant, effective reform. At the end of my last blog post I called for an improved discourse between the media, the public and politicians regarding corruption in the UK – a conclusion I suggested was a cop-out. I’m afraid little has changed and the conclusion still stands (sorry!). Ultimately, it is important, no, vital, to realise just how imperative it is to engage with this question and to do that one should try one’s level best to attend these symposia and engage in these debates.

Posted in Academic, Policy, UK, Uncategorized
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  2. […] lamented the lack of anything substantive on party funding (a favourite topic of this blog, see here and here). Given the animosity between Labour and the Conservatives on this issue, that’s […]

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