Sensible people want to hear from their politicians during an election about the plans and intentions they have for the next five years, if chosen to govern. People are quite interested in examining the record of leading parties in power, so there does have to be some discussion of the past to help form impressions of whether a party in government is broadly helpful, reliable and good at handling crises. The main preoccupation is what will happen next? Will we be better off? Will things that currently annoy us be improved or changed?That requires an intelligent examination of what parties say they wish to do, and probing to make sure they have thought through their plans and are resolved to carry them out.
There is a danger that too much knocking copy and too many fights over Westminster issues distracts from what really matters to individual voters. Labour’s decision to make “dodgy donors” the issue was always going to cause trouble, and may help put more people off politics. Any named Conservative donor was going to deny the dodgy label and maybe sue if Labour pursued the charge. What does dodgy mean? How do you prove dodgy? Is it aggressive tax avoidance, or does it have to be tax evasion? Presumably it’s more than having a large pension fund or a few ISAs. It also meant that some in the press and in other political parties would start the trawl for Labour dodgy donors. If there are dodgy donors, they will not all support the same party.
Relying on private donors has its difficulties for all political parties. They have to show the donors cannot “buy policy”. The donor may give because he or she likes what the party is saying, but should not give to get the party to change what it is saying. They do have to obey the law and turn down donations from people who do not qualify as donors. For the party’s sake, they also need to satisfy themselves that a large donor can withstand any unfriendly enquiries from jealous party rivals.
However, the main alternative, of requiring taxpayers money to finance parties seems to me to be far worse. Why should I as a taxpayer help finance parties I disagree with? How do you prevent taxpayer funding acting as a buttress to old parties who are well established and stifling new or challenger parties? What is a fair way of giving out the money? Should today money be given out based on how many seats parties won in 2010? Or how many votes they won then? Or should modern opinion polls have some role? The difficulty in defining who should join a leaders’ debate would b e mild in comparison to the squabbles over how much state finance each is due.
The donor battles will be damaging to all involved. There can be no winners. The best answer to limit the damage would be to reform the current system in two ways. The first would be to drop the long campaign, and to limit the election campaign to the last month. The second would be to impose a lower limit on how much any party can spend, so limiting the number of rich donors or the amounts parties need to take from any one source. That seems to me to be the least bad control.