Ken McDonagh 13 April 2011
Vincent Browne has a new bugbear – party finance. In today’s Irish Times he writes: ‘The only reason anyone would give money to a political party is because they expect to get something in return’
He goes on to link the problem of private funding for political parties to the disproportionate representation of the views of the very wealthy, (to read the full article click here) however his proposed solution is neither fair nor practical.
This is due to the fact that Vincent has misidentified the problem, the transactional nature of political support is not the core of the issue – namely the willingness to donate in order to have your view represented, essentially this is the same logic as voting – the problem is the relative difference in power and influence between the very wealthy and the ordinary citizens produced by the ability of the former to use their substantial financial resources to influence policy makers.
True his proposed system would break that link between policy makers and the wealthy elite but in doing so it would also break the important link between political parties and their supporters based on the need to attract members to raise funds and organise between elections. Browne’s system would reduce parties even further in the direction of being merely electoral vehicles for individual candidates who are increasingly beholden to the state abstracted from local and/or sectional concerns.
The essence of representative democracy is that candidates represent real differences in society and compete for the political power to either implement or influence the direction of policy. Browne is correct to identify that our party system has become beholden to too narrow a cross section of society due to the influence of private and corporate donations. He is also correct to identify a ban on such donations and a turn to State funding as a solution to this problem, however by breaking the link between this funding and some measure of popular support his proposed cure may be worse than the disease.
I’ve written elsewhere on this site on how a publicly funded system could be designed that would deal with the problems identified by Browne but also maintaining a link between active membership, popular support and party financing. The essence of the system is that it would operate along the lines of the German tithe system where individuals identify themselves as party supporters via the Revenue and a fixed amount of state funding is given to that party for each supporter. That payment would also constitute a membership fee for that party.
The point is that we neither can nor should escape from the transactional nature of party support but we can and should design a system of political funding that prevents small elites from capturing the political system by exploiting the transactional aspect of politics and the inequality of wealth in society.