Fixing the law on political party funding

First published on Mark Pack’s Liberal Democrat Newswire:

There are two central democratic principles which the UK political system breaches day after day, year in, year out. First, the idea that millions of votes not millions of pounds should decide elections: that parties should not be able to buy seats in Parliament. Second, that donors should not be able effectively to buy up parties, thereby securing disproportionate influence.

The police are presently investigating up to 30 MPs who stand accused of breaking the law about election spending. Whether or not any or all of them, or their agents, are prosecuted, the law in this area will remain utterly deficient.

While the Labour Government legislated in 2000 to make political donations more transparent, it did little to stop the auction of influence and access in our political system. The “national” limits on party spending are very high at about £20m for the year before an election. This tide of cash then washes into a very few marginal constituencies. By avoiding mention of a local candidate, parties can ignore (lower) local limits on candidate spending.

Then there is the question of where the money comes from. With no cap on individual donations, we’ve seen time after time that wealthy people and corporate interests expect privileged access in return for their largesse.

I have been campaigning for some decades for a comprehensive reform including a donation cap and public funding redistributed from existing spending on our democracy. I published a cross-party draft Bill to this end back in 2013. And last year I succeeded with colleagues in getting a special Lords Select Committee set up to examine the issues afresh.

Yet, despite 2015 manifesto commitments to progress from all major parties, it appeared this Parliament offered little hope of change. However, in March I moved an updated version of my Private Members’ Bill during a rare Friday slot in the Lords. It received a surprisingly positive response from the Government. They have promised new discussions to “break the logjam” and progress with “incremental reform”. What is meant by this very few people – probably not even Ministers – know.

But politics is often about taking opportunities when they come. My colleagues and I are certainly seizing this one. With the Law Commission advocating a new Bill to consolidate existing electoral law, the time to revisit these issues is surely now.

In the discussions which have been promised, we will seek to promote a democracy in which seats in Parliament, and access to Government are not for sale. And top of my list of “increments” is redefining “local” and “national” expenditure. Please do let Mark and me know what would be on your list.

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