Ballot Box Briefing #1 – Public Funding for Political Parties

Followers of Ballot Box Scotland over on Twitter will be aware that, although this project strenuously avoids political partisanship, it isn’t silent on fundamental issues about how our democracy functions. As a new feature, I’m going to start compiling briefings on some of these issues. These will offer the opportunity to get into more of the detail of how some of these ideas might work, in a way that would be impractical for a standard post.

Background

Political parties play a vital role in our democracy, as both voters and candidates can’t possibly have the time to develop in-depth knowledge on every policy area. By generally adhering to defined ideologies, parties make it easier for us all to engage with democracy – even if are often the subject of public ire. However, despite this essential status, parties face a very uneven playing field in terms of funding, being largely reliant on membership dues and donations.

This massively benefits larger, established parties who are able to count on support from wealthy backers, whilst keeping smaller and newer parties out in the cold. Even worse, leaving party funding at the mercy of the most wealthy opens up the possibility of using that influence to buy policy. An easy solution to this would be to provide a substantial portion of party funding from the public purse. The first of these Ballot Box Briefings takes a look at this thorny issue.

As unappealing as the principle of publicly funding parties may sound to folk in the UK, as with so much else about our politics what we take as a wild idea is actually the norm basically everywhere else in Europe. Most commonly it involves funding based on the number of votes per party at the most recent election or group of elections. Depending on country, additional funds may also be distributed at a flat rate for every eligible party, or to parties which meet requirements for women’s and youth participation, amongst other things.

The UK does have some basic funding for parties in place, but only in support of parliamentary business, not for the general running costs of the parties. It’s also based primarily on seats won, which further benefits those parties already benefiting from the effects of First Past the Post.

Proposal

The system proposed in the briefing is a (relatively) simple per-vote annual funding model for parties that achieved at least 1.5% of the vote in either the most recent Holyrood or Westminster election. This mechanism gives a degree of public control over what parties are funded in the sense that if a voter is entirely opposed to funding a particular party, they won’t vote for it.

Both for the simplicity and in recognition that the concept is likely to be instinctively resisted, this suggests a modest figure of (the equivalent of) £1 per vote at whichever of the most recent parliamentary elections had the highest turnout. Funding for parties below 1.5% could be pooled into a general pot which new and smaller parties can access under specific circumstances, such as to help print a run of leaflets.

Since Scotland has those two major levels of parliamentary election it makes sense to include the results of both elections in the formula. On the other hand, given only one of the elections is (partly) proportional and there is a degree of turnout difference, it would clearly be unfair to treat them equally. The briefing suggests that the Holyrood List vote should be the primary component of the funding formula, on the basis that as the vote with the most options available to most voters, it’s probably the best reflection of overall support.

As Holyrood has lower turnout, it needs to be “uplifted” such that the number of votes used for the calculation is equal to the number of votes cast at the most recent Westminster election. It then suggests a figure of 65p per (uplifted) Holyrood vote, and 35p per Westminster vote.

2021 Figures

Based on the results of the 2019 UK election and the 2021 Scottish election, the annual public funding offered to parties from 2021 would be:

That’d amount to a total expenditure of £2,759,061 which is equivalent to the number of votes cast in Scotland at the 2019 UK Parliament Election. That was only marginally higher than the number of votes (2,712,783) cast in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, which only slightly increases the worth of a vote at that election to 66 pence.

The ordering of parties here maps almost to their ranking at Holyrood, though the Lib Dems’ much stronger performance at Westminster gives them an edge over the Greens under this scheme. Alba would be the only non-parliamentary party to cross the 1.5% threshold to be eligible for funding, whilst votes for parties below that threshold would amount to a pool of nearly £69k.

As noted earlier, some countries combine their per-vote formula for funding with a flat payment for all eligible parties. A similar idea is floated in the briefing, though since it’s quite simple it isn’t covered in massive detail. I suggest an additional payment of £40k, which I reckon should cover the cost of an office and a single staff member to assist with administration. Incorporating that into the figures then looks like this:

This tilts the balance of funding slightly away from the SNP, and even more slightly from the Conservatives, towards the Lib Dems, Greens and Alba, whilst Labour receive roughly the same proportion of the pool either way.

The briefing goes into further detail in applying this model to the other parts of the UK, but that’s outwith the scope of this post. Beyond even what’s covered in the briefing, there are other aspects of party financing in the UK that bear consideration. An annual cap on donations from one person is another way to help level the playing field, for example. And in a move that would help boost the presence of parties outside the “Westminster Four” on ballot papers for that parliament, abolishing deposits to stand for election is such a no-brainer that the Electoral Commission itself has long advocated it.

You can read the full Public Funding for Political Parties briefing here.

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