Party Games: Pay to Play

Posted by Kenneth McDonagh, Dec 3rd 2010

One of the recurrent themes of the recent debates on political reform has been the lack of engagement and/or connection between ordinary citizens and the political system. The public ranges between rage and apathy when it comes to the question of how to influence politics. Calls for electoral reform are criticised because the voters will always get the government they deserve regardless of how you count up the preferences. Calls for institutional reform may be doomed to failure because the same party minions toiling under the same party whips will find themselves in these new institutions, you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Or in social science terms: Garbage in, Garbage out.


Political parties remain the gate keepers of political power and no institutional or other reform is likely to change this fact, nor should it necessarily seek to as parties play a vital role in shaping an otherwise inchoate set of preferences into more coherent sets. However, clearly some step needs to be taken to address the representativeness of political parties and the links between them and citizens. A second aspect of this disconnect is the shift in party funding away from membership dues and fundraising and towards a combination of state funding and corporate donations (including trade unions). What reforms could address both of these issues simultaneously?

One suggestion is as follows. Base party funding on a system comparable to the German Tithe system for collecting revenue for Churches.

Let me explain, citizens would be required to register as a member of a specific registered political party or as an independent. Each citizen would pay a discreet levy via their tax return specifically for the purpose of funding political parties. If the citizen is a member of a party this levy would go directly to the party and would serve as a membership due i.e. the party couldn’t charge any further fee for full membership rights, if they have registered as an independent this levy would go in to a central pool which would be disbursed based on party support.
Outside of this system, only party members will be allowed to contribute to a party and all such donations must be declared on a state database (to be made available online) and  capped to a fixed maximum amount to include the amount contributed via the levy. Furthermore, contributions can be made to only one party per year to avoid abuse of the system via switching.

This reform would, I suggest, have a number of effects.
First of all it would encourage citizens to engage with the party system. If people are aware of the direct financial contribution they make to parties, even if they are independents, they are likely to take more interest in what the parties do with this money.
Secondly, most people are not indifferent to the various party organisations and would be likely to opt to have their levy contribute to one specific party. As this would effectively constitute membership they would be included in party mailing lists, activities, be aware of elections for party officers etc. and therefore more likely to become involved.
Thirdly, it would encourage parties to seek members as they have a direct bearing on the ability of the party to fund itself. Legally they will not be allowed to discriminate among different kinds of members, so the way to attract participation would be to give members something to participate in, increasing internal party democracy and participation. This incentive to attract members increases as parties realise they can out do their polling based allocation by attracting a disproportionately large number of members.
Finally as party membership becomes a normal part of everyday life some of the current social and cultural barriers to participation should diminish. Particularly the limiting of ordinary members participation to electioneering activities which in turn should help attract more able people into party politics.
As mentioned above, regardless of what shape political reform takes political parties are almost certain to retain a central role. The success of institutional reform is therefore dependent on the party systems ability to produce representatives capable of making the most of those reformed institutions. The above proposal would go some way to ensuring that this would happen, or at least if it didn’t we’d have no one to blame but ourselves.

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20 thoughts on “Party Games: Pay to Play

  1. I very much like the model of party funding outlined above. The one question not addressed above is who would agree the limits on the levy. Do we allow the policical elite decide what they are worth? Or do we have a mini-referendum (say every 5 years) to set the value.

    • I’m not sure whether the cost of a referendum would be justified to review this, perhaps it could be set by an independent electoral commission, but you’re right leaving it in the hands of the legislature wouldn’t be the best idea.

  2. Serious food for thought , thanks. The people aren’t apathetic they are despairing. We have a large turn out for every election in spite of the lack of representation. Was it the 2002 Election that saw 33 Indepedents returned? 5 or 6 on health platform alone. Huge numbers of people were angry then and obviously had no faith in opposition to effect change. Unfortunately the momemtum was lost because dissatisfied didn’t work coherently together because of the understandable aversion to political parties. Look at European Treaty referenda. Our party politicians on almost all sides actually ignored the will of the people. 250,000 people signed a petition to stop Woodquay development. In a country that had a population of 3.2 million and an average age of 25 at the time that is a stagggering amount. We do not live in a democracy only the sham of one.
    Your idea involves change from within the political system and yes it will take organised unity to effect change. Do we trust one another enough to do it?
    Waht you suggest seems to me to possibly require constituitonal amendment and alot of legal requirements. Again even if massive numbers of people back you we are back to the question of will enough our politicians? Different people will have to run and this time when elected band together.
    Incidentally in Poland there is a 7% (or something)on one’s personal income tax which a taxpayer can direct to their charity of choice and if they do not nominate a particular charity it automatically goes to the Catholic Church. I am told most don’t realise this is what happens so supposedly empowering idea gets skewed. Education to make your idea work in terms of engaging people will be key.

    • I agree that people are angry but was trying to get across the idea that this anger tends to end up with a shrug of the shoulders as the assumption is that all politicians are the same with no real idea as to how people can effect change.
      In terms of the technical requirements, I don’t think my proposal is that complicated there are plenty of similar models, albeit based on religious/charity contributions, to base this system on. In terms of the legal requirements, some new legislation would be required but no constitutional issues arise as far as I can see.
      It’s also worth pointing out that new political parties would be eligible for funding in this system so it doesn’t necessarily rely on change from within the current system.

  3. Why not instead require political parties to publish who donates to them – to the cent and the names of the people and also require them to publish receipts and proof of where the money is spent.

    There is no need for convoluted reforms when far easier changes would do the job as well. We don’t need a new way of voting, we need instead people to change the way they vote, we don’t need a massive reform of politics, we need published receipts, we need at the stroke of a pen to cut salaries, expenses and pension and we need a Swedish style FOI.

    These could all be done at the stroke of a pen in about ten minutes. But as a people we don’t put any pressure on the political class to deliver these changes because in our ways it suits us the way things are, we want other people to take a pay or pension cut but not us, we want other people to not use a TD as a lacky but we still want to be able to etc.

    How many people who sit and moan about things have ever e-mailed a TD or party leader or joined a party or written to the paper and how many have made sure they are registered to vote – how many will even go and vote. It ought to be 100% but you know how lazy and stupid Irish people can be …

    • I think you’re right about the need for greater transparency but that alone won’t deal with the problems you outline above. If people are too lazy to vote then why do you think they’d bother going to some state database to check up on party finances?
      My proposal links citizens tax contributions directly to party funding in a transparent manner. Citizens can still choose to be indifferent but if they’re more aware of the direct economic contribution they’re making to the system they might be more inclined to take an interest. I wouldn’t claim it’s a panacea but I do think that sometimes ‘convoluted’ reforms are worth a go.

  4. I can see several potential problems with this depending on how you structure it:

    Unless the maximum levy is very low, it could increase the structural incentive for parties to court the vote of higher income groups – especially if the levy is progressive, but also if it’s a flat percentage. It’s much easier and less administratively onerous to attract 10,000 wealthy members than 100,000 poor ones.

    If the levy is a flat fee or rate, it’s a form of regressive taxation. This is inherently unfair but might increase the incentive for lower income groups to get involved in politics – or it might not. Many people simply do not have the time.

    Lots of citizens are too poor to pay direct tax, or in the case of women, the unemployed, the elderly or students are not working. So if the proposal was successful in increasing party membership, it would be skewed towards taxpaying working age men and wealthy pensioners. It also reinforces the anti-democratic contemporary equation of citizenship with being a direct taxpayer.

    Finally, the proposal is reminiscent of the Australian system of forcing people to vote, which doesn’t seem to produce a more informed citizenry viz. ‘the donkey vote’. You could end up with a very unpopular additional tax, creating more resentment of the political system.

    The issue of state funding is trickier. On the one hand it currently favours the status quo, but on the other if you abolish it without other reforms you create more of an incentive for political parties to chase the wealthy for donations. This could be combated to some extent by capping all personal donations at a low level to encourage parties to seek mass support and by banning corporate donations. This ban should not include trade unions, which, unlike corporations, are democratic mass membership organisations.

    However no matter what reform you make, there will always be ways around any donations system e.g. businessmen making donations in the names of family members & employees, companies paying for advertising space in party etc. The only real solution would require economic and social as well as political reform. Basically you can’t have one without the other.

    I would not support making all donations public as Desmond proposes. This is akin to abolishing the secret ballot and would discourage donations to radical parties, as potential employers could simply google candidates’ political allegiances.

    • Hi Sinead,
      I think you’ve highlighted some important points there. I’d see the initial levy as a standard and relatively nominal charge but it would be used as part of the normal calculation of tax rates to avoid any regressive effect.
      In terms of further donations, a relatively low limit could be set. As you say, there would still be an incentive to recruit wealthier members but all citizens would be entitled to join parties with full voting rights there are some checks and balances built in. Regardless, I still think it’s an improvement on the current system.
      On donations, I have to still agree with Des. Transparency is a must, we can’t decide we want transparency only for people we disagree with. Yes, there is potential for discrimination but that can be dealt with via employment law.
      Similarly, I don’t think you can sustain the argument that trade union donations should be treated differently to other interest groups. Yes they are different to corporations, but private business could funnel funding via there ‘mass membership’ organisations such as ISME, IBEC etc.

      • No matter what reforms you make to employment law, it would effectively be impossible to prove someone didn’t get a job because a potential employer googled them. It’s not the same as legislating for other forms of discrimination e.g. employers can’t reasonably claim not to be aware of someone’s gender.

        I agree there should be transparency for large personal donations by anyone – whether I agree with their politics or not – but I would favour disallowing large donations in any case. Not sure where exactly to set the bar but I don’t think it’s fair that someone buying a 10 euro raffle ticket should have that decision permanently recorded in an instantly accessible public format. As a matter of interest, would you also ban anonymous donations?

        I still think there’s no real comparison between mass membership trade unions that are democratically-run and employers’ groups representing a small elite, in which decisions are taken by a small board or management from each company.

        Over 1.6m people are members of trade unions whereas between them, ISME, IBEC and the SFA have 24,000 member companies amounting to a far smaller proportion of the population, even at a generous estimate of ownership and top management. More importantly, those concerned are mostly wealthy individuals more than capable of providing large personal donations – in contrast to the majority of employees – so whether you stop them from naking contributions as an interest group or not wouldn’t make much difference.

        To be clear, I don’t support the current system whereby trade union donations are made to the Labour party without consulting the membership, but I do favour the principle of trade union donations, without which the growth of labour parties would have been more difficult.

        The current system could be reformed, either by allowing union members to opt in or out of making political donations to a party of their choice as part of their sub, or through a democratic vote of the membership with funding allocated proportionally. This would democratise trade union donations but still leave them as a bloc capable of exerting influence in the interest of their members. This would not require party membership.

        Allowing trade unions to make political donations is an important principle, mainly because it is much easier to organise 1,000 wealthy people to donate to a political party on an individual basis than it is to organise 100,000 lower income people to do so in the absence of a organisational structure.

        A similar point can be made in relation to other ‘interest groups’ or social movements. Basically, it is by banding together that non-elites are able to have a political voice. Under the proposal to ban all ‘interest group’ donations, the wealthy would not really be affected, but the voice of non-elites could be undermined by not allowing them to make donations through democratic representative organisations.

        IMO the excessive influence of bankers, developers and other business elites is the main cause of the property bubble and banking collapse, so any reforms to the political system in response to that crisis should have reducing the influence of those groups as the main objective.

        I don’t believe the unions caused this crisis so therefore I don’t see the need to reduce their influence – although they are in dire need of internal reform so that they represent the interests of their members better.

        Finally, on a practical level the tax proposal would create loads of paper members not contributing any time to the parties. This would not be a problem for FF/FG/Lab whose members are largely inactive anyway, but it violates the rules of activist parties.

        It would also remove control over membership from parties, meaning for instance that Michael O’Leary could join a left wing party on the basis of a minimal donation merely to make a nuisance of himself!

      • Hi Sinead,
        Again I think you have a number of valid points there. I wouldn’t be as dismissive of employment law as you but accept it would be a difficult one to prove.
        On the trade unions, there’s nothing to stop trade unions encouraging there members to join a particular party in order to support progressive problems. I agree with the substance of your point about corporate influence, but I don’t see how you could distinguish in law between different kinds of membership organisations. I also think individual donation limits could be structured to minimize corporate influence.
        On the last point, it’s up to the members to engage with the party structures. I think more people will be minded to get active if they are aware of the financial contribution they are making – but I could be wrong.
        I do quite like the idea of Michael O’Leary doing a petition stall on O’Connell st with the SWP though! But again, even he wouldn’t be able to cause too much trouble to a party on his own.

  5. I don’t think this is a good idea for the simple reason that the idea of promoting change via existing structures such as political parties is not feasible. Political parties by their nature operate a bit like organised religion that you have to subscribe to what they believe in which is at the root of our problem. The moment you walk and say “Hey I’m here to because I want to change the system” which they already are a part of you will be shown the door, I know because I’ve experienced it. Dishing out cash to structures which let’s face it most people are dubious about is not a way forward. A mechanism is needed where people can form new structures which makes the existing ones wake up and take note is a better option otherwise you are inviting political gridlock.

    I could also go into the fact that the system proposed like tithes only invites abuse and control over the people who contribute them rather than the people controlling the collector of these tithes.

    Genuine renewal requires a green field from which people can act, so be careful about the mechanisms that are proposed. True renewal should be on the basis of using channels that people trust and then listen to what they say. If what is said is not heard then people will leave and go elsewhere and eventually what is called a system will simply fall apart and die.

    It should be remembered that the smartest and most dynamic who feel excluded will simply walk away first and the evidence is there that this is already in play. Emigration is a good sign of this! Political parties should get out and canvass our views, especially those who aspire to future office. What bothers me is those who think they deserve to be in power have not bothered to do this as they would have done 20 years ago.

    However I agree that people need to engage in politics and decision making as they cannot sit back either. People in Ireland have buried their heads in the sand about this and chosen to leave it to their neighbours to fight for their interests. But as I said earlier new structures rather than existing ones with pre-defined agendas might be a better way to achieve this.

    • Hi Robbie,

      This system doesn’t prevent new parties from emerging, in fact by reducing the power of corporate donations it might actually make it easier.
      People have to take responsibility for the parties that represent them. If you’re not happy with the status quo then work to change it.

  6. Also you realise if you don’t pay the German Church tax you are not allowed to have a church funeral and burial.

    So if you don’t pay this political tax would you not be allowed to vote?

    Not voting is a way of expressing an opinion in its own way, but casting an actual vote is a far more effective way of expressing an opinion.

    But I would say there is probably more need for the services of a psychological sociologist rather than policy wonks, as the reason the Irish people have been so pathetic in their response to this mess has to lie in the past and colonialims and what the Catholic Church did – there must be an element of Stockholm Symdrone in the refusal of Irish people to stop having a sneeking regard for the cronies.

    As noble as rules or system changes are, wil lthey do anything to stop someone in Kerry voting for a Healy Rae or in Tipp for Lowry or those who vote for Flynn in Mayo or Ellis in Leitrim etc.

    People are so cynical now because there is no transparency or accountability because no one in politics wants there to be, Enda Kenny won’t be any different to Brian Cowen in that regard. Or for those who think Eamon Gilmore is different to the big two, just look at the sort of mentality that he used to justify the payments his wife received for that land. He’s more of the same.

    Then there’s SF, is it really possible that the people of Louth are going to vote for someone, when the bodies of people he and his friends were involved in ‘disappearing’ are still being dug up on the beaches of Louth – it’s too grotesque for words.

    So whichever party you pick, none of them offer geuine or honest reform of the scale needed and the scale needed isn’t massive, just a 50% cut in salaries and pensions, I mean shouldn’t the sort of person we want in poltics, be the very sort of person who would give up a large salary in the private sector to psend some time serving their country, otherwise aren’t we just attracting people who are in it for the money with no concept of serving their country – say what you like but when politicians were paid normally you had real genuine politics, you may not like the policies but I think we all agree the likes of Tom O’Higgins, Garret FitzGerald, Nuala Fennell, Gemma Hussey, Justin Keating, George Colley, Des O’Malley (before he got the God complex and lost his way) Paddy Hillery, Michael O’Kennedy, Cruise O’Brian, Frank Cluskey, Brendan Corish, Liam Cosgrave etc – there are no politician of any party who come even close to the calibre of these people.

    Is Enda Kenny going to implement the sort of reduction in the gravy train that would attrach the likes of the above into politics – hardly – of course he’ll be better than the current lot but will he be good enough.

  7. Re forcing people to join a party etc. You’re forgetting the several hundred thousand people in the public service (above the clerical grades) who are legally barred from joining any political party or carrying out any political activity.

      • Yes, but that would skew everything statistically implying far more support for independents than is likely to be the case. Plus assume I’m a Fine Gael supporting public servant, why should I then be forced to support the independents? Assuming that I’m picking you up correctly and you’re proposing this would be mandatory.

      • Sorry, the post may not be as clear as I hoped. The funding from those who register as independents would go into a central pool which would be distributed to the parties based on the electoral strength of the party as per the current system. It would not be used to fund independents.

  8. Pingback: Party finance and Political Representation « politicalreform.ie

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