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.

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.

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, a modest figure of (the equivalent of) £1 per vote at the most recent parliamentary election with the highest turnout is suggested. Funding for parties below 1.5% is suggested to 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 substantial 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. Based on the 2016 Holyrood and 2019 Westminster Elections, that would give;

Funding Per Party (% share of overall public funding);

  • SNP – £1,183,012.90 (42.9%)
  • Conservative – £653,830.45 (23.7%)
  • Labour – £521,162.90 (18.9%)
  • Liberal Democrat – £185,785.55 (6.7%)
  • Green – £127,866.45 (4.6%)
  • UKIP – £37,571.40 (1.4%)
  • Others – £49,821.35 (1.8%)
  • Total – £2,759,061.00 (precisely equal to £1 per vote at the 2019 GE, or 0.006% of the 2020-21 Scottish Budget)

The stand out figure here is probably that UKIP would be eligible for funding, having won 2% at the 2016 Holyrood election. It’s not a huge sum of money though, so it probably wouldn’t have made a huge difference to the Brexit Party displacing them since. The other parties fall in roughly the order you’d expect – although the Greens won more votes than the Lib Dems on the more valuable Holyrood list vote, they come so far behind at Westminster that the Lib Dems comfortably come ahead in funds once you total everything up.

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;

Funding Per Party (% share of overall public funding);

  • SNP – £1,223,012.90 (40.8%)
  • Conservative – £693,830.45 (23.1%)
  • Labour – £561.162.90 (18.7%)
  • Liberal Democrat – £225,785.55 (7.5%)
  • Green – £167,866.45 (5.6%)
  • UKIP – £77,571.40 (2.6%)
  • Others – £49,821.35 (1.7%)
  • Total – £2,999,061.00

This would tilt the overall balance of funding slightly more towards the three smaller qualifying parties (Lib Dems, Greens and UKIP) and away from the three larger (SNP, Conservative and Labour). Obviously, as the figure for “others” relates to parties that aren’t eligible for funding individually, it doesn’t increase.

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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