Issues & Debates Around Party Funding

Issues & Debates Around Party Funding

Political parties require income to fund their activities. Private funding of political parties is associated with the risk and perception of improper influence by the donator. Reform proposals have focused on a cap on donations and an increase in public funding. However, it has proven difficult for the parties to agree on the level of a cap on donations, and there is some resistance to increasing public funding whilst there are pressures on public spending.

The finances of British political parties were largely unregulated before the Labour government that came to power in 1997 passed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA). PPERA was based on a report on party funding published in 1998. It regulates the funding and spending of political parties, candidates and certain others, and created the Electoral Commission to monitor this.

During the Labour Governments in power between 1997 and 2010, party funding reviews were carried out by the Electoral Commission (2004), the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee (2006) and Sir Hayden Phillips (2007). PPERA was modified by the Electoral Administration Act 2006 that subjected loans to the same rules as donations, and the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 that introduced new spending limits and altered donation reporting thresholds.

The Coalition Government included a commitment to party funding reform in its coalition agreement. Reports on party funding were published by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (2011) and the Electoral Commission (2013). Cross-party talks broke down in 2013. The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 restricted the funding and spending of non-party campaigners during election periods.

The Conservative Government elected in 2015 reduced the public funding available to opposition parties. The Trade Union Bill 2015-16 introduced on 15 July 2016 includes provisions that could have implications for the funding the Labour Party receives from trade unions.

There are limits on how much a party can spend on campaigning at certain elections. The limits vary by election type. At these elections, parties must keep a record of all their campaign spending. They must send this information to the Electoral Commission in a spending return after the election. Parties who spend over a certain amount must have this return independently audited. There was concern following the 2015 election that some Conservative candidates had benefitted from spending that had been classified as ‘national spending’ when in fact the money was being spent on local campaigning- for instance, the use of a ‘battle bus’ to transport supporters around a constituency.

Traditionally, the Conservatives have received large donations from wealthy donors and large companies, whereas Labour has received backing from Trade Unions. Donations worth over £7,500 to national parties must be declared, as must be donations worth £1,500 or more to local associations. Donations to members’ associations – groups whose members are primarily or entirely members of a single political party – also need to be declared above £7,500.

There have been ongoing concerns with party funding in the UK. It could be argued to be unfair if one party is able to vastly outspend the other during an election campaign, for instance. The influence of wealthy individuals, and trade unions, on political parties has also been a matter of concern, hence the introduction of rules on spending. Similarly, it could be argued that parties should receive public funds to help them campaign as part of a healthy pluralist democracy, however, this raises questions of how much they should receive, and which parties should get such money.

The benefits of state funding include:

  • Reduces reliance on private donors or trade unions with vested interests, making parties more responsive to the public
  • Creates more of a level playing field for parties, reducing the unfair advantage given by large donations
  • Parties could perform more effectively without the need to spend time and effort raising funds

The drawbacks of state funding include:

  • Parties would no longer need to seek financial support, so may have their links to society weakened
  • If as expected funding is linked to past electoral performance, this would favour existing parties
  • It may make parties less independent of the state

Relations with & Influence of the Media

Mass media can be defined as venues for messages that are created for consumption by large numbers of people. The media has remarkable impact on politics. However, the impact may not always be good. If used against politicians it can easily, but not always, destroy his or her career, but if the media likes that one politician it can take his or her career to new heights. Similarly, the media affects the perception of not only politicians but events, responses to events, elections, and referendum campaigns.

The changing and evolving nature of the media: More traditional avenues such as the printed press have seen a significant decline in readership in recent years, particularly readership amongst young people. Newspapers still have plenty of influence, for example ‘setting the agenda’ for that day’s news. However, new forms of communication such as social media have become much more important. It is argued that young people (and many ‘non-young’ people) now primarily consume their political news through mediums such as Facebook and Twitter. This has led to concern over the numbers of ‘fake news’ stories appearing in user’s newsfeeds- stories that masquerade as truth, but are actually completely fabricated. It has been argued that this can (and perhaps has) had an effect on, for example, voter choices in elections.

Media bias and persuasion: Terrestrial broadcasters are expected to maintain impartiality and balance in political broadcasting, however, newspapers and internet websites are under no such obligation. Most national newspapers, except The Guardian, The Independent, The i _and _the Mirror, generally support the Conservatives. Most newspaper readers therefore read Conservative newspapers, even if they buy them initially for non-political purposes. The impact of this may be that people have their political views shaped almost unknowingly. During election campaigns, newspapers often openly endorse particular political parties, and spend time supporting and praising that party whilst attacking the opposition. A feature of the 2015 election was the relentless negative portrayal of Labour’s Ed Miliband in the right-wing press. Miliband’s father was attacked as an ‘enemy of Britain’, supposedly due to his left-wing views, and Miliband’s personal presentational style was also heavily criticised. The Sun newspaper has in the past claimed responsibility for election victories by certain parties. On the day of the 1992 general election it printed a front page with the head of Labour leader Neil Kinnock superimposed onto a light bulb, with the headline ‘if Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’. Following the surprise Conservative victory, the paper then led with the headline ‘it was the Sun wot won it’. However, the amount of influence the media has is up for debate. It could be the case that newspaper readers choose a particular paper due to its support, rather than the influence working in the opposite direction.

Effect of media on parties: The media is sometimes accused of adding to the cynicism surrounding UK political parties and politicians. The tabloid press, for example, focuses more on political scandals and allegations of incompetence and failure (perhaps due to commercial pressures). As a result of the increasing role of the media, there is now an emphasis amongst politicians in dealing with this, which in itself may have contributed to the negative perception of politics and politicians. Politicians now receive extensive media training, which has led to the impression of them avoiding answering questions properly, delivering meaningless soundbites, only appearing at carefully stage-managed events, and generally appearing less like ‘real people’. The emphasis on ‘spin’- the biased or distorted presentation of information in the media- also creates the impression that politicians are less trustworthy.

Opinion polls: These are used to gauge public opinion, for example on a particular issue or on voting intention. In recent years, the reputation of opinion polls for accuracy and reliability has taken a hit. In the lead-up to the 2015 election, polls consistently showed the Conservatives and Labour as very closely matched, leading to a belief in the likelihood of a Hung Parliament, and speculation as to which parties may go into coalition together. The result actually was an overall majority for the Conservative Party. It is thought that opinion polls tend to underestimate support for the Conservatives (the ‘shy Tory’ effect), and in 2015 did not adequately consider the likelihood of voting at all. Nevertheless, opinion polls are important, as they give a sense of not only how popular a party is but also its leader and particular policies. Opinion polls may therefore lead to a change in policy direction, or even a change in party leader.

What influence does the media actually have?

The media can be argued to have a big impact on people’s political views and choices:

  • Various forms of media, especially newspapers, portray parties and politicians in particular ways, which affects what people think about them
  • Social media exposes people to many views and opinions which may affect their own beliefs
  • The way politicians try and present themselves to the media can affect what people think of them

On the other hand, it could be argued that the media simply reinforces people’s existing choices:

  • People tend to consume, and believe, newspapers which support their existing point of view
  • People recognise bias more in media that does not support their existing view- media which reflects their view tends to be seen as ‘the truth’ or ‘common sense’
  • On social media, people are friends with, and follow, people and journalists who are in line with their own beliefs, creating a false impression that most people are in agreement with a particular view (the ‘echo chamber’ idea)
  • Newspapers and media outlets cannot be too out-of-step with public opinion, as this may affect sales/consumption

Factors Affecting Electoral Outcomes

The electoral system: this has traditionally benefitted the two major parties, by exaggerating their support. Parties such as the Lib Dems and UKIP have been penalised for not having a concentration of support in enough areas. The SNP benefitted from the first-past-the-post system in 2015, winning 56 out of 59 seats with nearly 1.5 million votes.

The media: the media focus tends to be on the two major parties. Elections are turned into a contest for the next Prime Minister. Other parties do not have nearly as much time and space devoted to them. Sometimes the media can overly focus on a smaller party however. Coverage devoted to UKIP far outweighed that devoted to the Green Party for example in the run up to the 2015 election, despite the fact that both parties ended up winning 1 seat. The national newspapers tend to be supportive of the Conservative Party, and have attacked recent Labour leaders (sometimes quite viciously). It has been argued by some that media coverage is unfairly favourable to the Conservatives.

Other parties: Labour has been hurt by the rise and success of the SNP, which has claimed a lot of its traditional Scottish support. UKIP has also taken away traditional Labour voters concerned about immigration. UKIP was a threat to Conservative support (namely Eurosceptic Conservatives), although the party has won back much of this following the Brexit result.

Events: the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the 2016 EU referendum have had the effect of weakening Labour support in Scotland, and in some working-class areas of the UK. The SNP increased its vote share significantly following 2014. UKIP saw an increase in its popularity leading up to the EU referendum, however, this has declined again in 2017.

Party leaders: this is seen as a major determining factor in party success. Ed Miliband was seen as an electoral liability for Labour, and they duly lost the 2015 election. Similar accusations have been levelled at Jeremy Corbyn, who has been derided as a weak leader. The media portrayal of the party leaders plays a large part in this perception. David Cameron was rarely criticised in the media, and Theresa May is seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’, who had much higher personal approval ratings than Corbyn, although the awkward personal style of May was exposed by the 2017 election campaign, narrowing the gap between the two leaders.

Recent Developments & Their Impact on Parties

UK politics in recent years has been dominated by two referendums: the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, and the EU membership referendum of 2016. This has had some major effects on the electoral fortunes of the UK’s main political parties.

Labour: Labour chose to campaign for Scotland to remain in the UK in 2014, alongside the Conservatives. A consequence of this is that support for Labour in Scotland (which was traditionally very strong) collapsed in the 2015 election, as Labour voters moved over to support the Scottish National Party. Scotland returned only 1 Labour MP in 2015, and 56 SNP MPs. This arguably cost the party the chance of winning that election. In some opinion polls the party slipped behind the Conservatives, who have been able to unite the unionist vote. The effect of the EU referendum has been for Labour to lose much of its traditional working-class support to UKIP. Labour has been criticised for its uncertain position on the question of Brexit- Jeremy Corbyn has in the past been opposed to many aspects of EU membership, although official party policy was to support the UK remaining a member. However, the 2017 general election saw a 10% increase in Labour’s share of the vote, due to popular manifesto policies, Corbyn’s committed campaigning style, and the unpopularity of the Conservative campaign

Conservatives: The Conservatives unexpectedly won an overall majority in the 2015 election, one consequence of which was that David Cameron needed to deliver on his manifesto promise of holding a referendum on EU membership. The party was divided over this issue (as it has been historically), with some government ministers backing ‘remain’ (David Cameron, George Osborne, Theresa May), and some ‘leave’ (Michael Gove, Chris Grayling). Following the referendum result, Cameron resigned and was replaced by May, who has enjoyed strong approval ratings, especially in comparison to Jeremy Corbyn. The decision to call an election in 2017 was seen as a way of shoring up this support and attempting to increase the Conservative majority. However, May ran what was regarded as a poor campaign, refusing to appear in TV debates, and performing a U-turn on a key policy (the so-called ‘dementia tax’). As a result, the Conservatives actually lost their majority (although their vote share increased by 5%).

__Liberal Democrats: __The Lib Dems suffered greatly from being in coalition government with the Conservatives. Seen has having ditched many of their key pledges (particularly the commitment to scrap tuition fees) their vote collapsed in 2015, even in areas where they had been traditionally strong such as the South West. This was partly due to the Conservative targeting of these seats. The 2015 result saw the Lib Dems reduced to just 8 MPs (down from 57). Although they have seen some signs of recovery in some local elections since, they remain some way down on their pre-coalition support, and only returned 14 MPs in the 2017 general election.

Party leaders are the crucial factor determining the success of political parties. - Analyse and evaluate this statement. (25 marks - three arguments for, three against)
Your answer should include: Brand / Media / Unity / Funds / Elections / Events / People