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Monday, 22 January, 2001, 11:08 GMT
Party funding: Should they take large donations?

The controversy over political party funding in the UK has been re-ignited.

The Conservatives revealed that Stuart Wheeler, a millionaire businessman, has given them 5 million to fight the next election, widely expected to be held in May.

It comes only weeks after the ruling Labour party revealed the names of three donors who had each given them 2 million.

Total election spending in the UK is set at 20 million per party, so large donations are an important part of any "war chest".

But does it make them beholden to these donors? Are such donations good or bad for the democratic process? Are there any alternatives?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

Political parties should be funded from the public purse but the quid pro quo is that they should publish full details of every intended item of legislation in their manifesto for prior approval by the electorate. Currently, only about 20 per cent of legislation is ever mentioned by any party until they get into office and then they go to work with their real agenda without any consultation with the electorate. Corporate donations should be banned simply because corporations do not have the franchise to vote and should not be allowed to buy influence through the back door.
Chris Millbank, London, UK

It's very interesting to read about Stuart Wheeler's views on the leadership of the Tories. Mr Wheeler said "I want nothing in return for my donation". Yet now we see that actually does want something in return. We all know Ken Clarke's views on Europe, it will be interesting to see if Mr Wheeler's view are opposite to Mr Clarke's. If political parties are only allowed to spend 15 million on an election, then Mr Wheeler will be footing the bill for at least a third, and maybe two-thirds. This is disgusting, one man should never have that much influence over an election. It's corruption at the heart of Conservative Central Office. The current trend of large donations is putting a grey edge to British politics, this shall be a very shady election indeed.
Alex White, UK

Patronage is an extremely powerful bond

Edmund McGuigan, UK
Patronage is an extremely powerful bond and anyone who gives millions of pounds to a political party is owed a debt of patronage. The only question is whether this debt is repaid in an innocuous way through the award of a knighthood, OBE or other meaningless title or through the donor having the ear of a powerful politician on major policy and other issues.

The idea of public funding has been proposed as an alternative. This has the potential to weaken rather than strengthen democracy. After all, how is it to be decided who is entitled to funds, how much they should receive and for precisely what purpose? Allowing all political parties the right to public funds would result in parties I dislike intensely (BNP for example) being given money I have paid through taxes to advance their cause. Limiting funds to the three main political parties though would mean that other parties are artificially disadvantaged by being prevented from receiving donations and thus being prevented from speaking their minds as is their right in a democracy. The only acceptable alternative then would appear to be to limit the donations given to parties to a certain amount low enough so no party or politician is indebted to any individual yet high enough to enable parties to raise sufficient funds to rouse the public's attention at election time.
Edmund McGuigan, UK

The only way to finance democracy is from the public purse

Graham Walker, UK
The only way to prevent wealthy individuals from buying influence is to prevent large donations. The only way to finance democracy is from the public purse. Stuart Wheeler has to be joking when he says that he gave the money to the Tories because Labour had been given donations and he wanted to see a fair fight. Where was he when Thatcher was buying elections with huge sums of UK and foreign money while Labour had to fight on shoestring budgets? I didn't hear him screaming about the unfairness of it all then!
Graham Walker, UK

The fuss about donations was swept all over the Tory press to do with the Labour Donations as if something corrupt was occurring, now we see an Old Etonian Gambler donating and the story is depicted as one of tremendous generosity! But hey what can you expect from Tories but double standards!
Steve Nova, England

Elections should be fought with policies, not lavish unnecessary spending. I would prefer to see less money spent on election campaigns and more on improving public services once in power.
Paul, UK

Why not and as long as any donations above a certain value are declared a government can at least show accountability. The 5m the Tories are being given will not make an ounce of difference anyway come the election
M Rouse, York, UK

There is a vast difference between taking part in the political process and being able to use your money to but increased influence. We can not allow the rich view to gain political power by waving their banknotes around.
AG, Scotland

The big corporations have as much right to participate in the political process as anyone else

Jeff, USA
In the US, as in Britain, campaign finance and party funding are always murky waters. However, I'm wary about regulating party donations and campaign finance too much because it would be a violation of free speech. The big corporations have as much right to participate in the political process as anyone else. I believe in unlimited donations and funding, but with full disclosure.
Jeff, USA

Surely it would be much better if they just did the TV interviews they do now to put across their views rather than pay for spin-doctors. Then use all this money for much more worthy causes. I would much rather vote for someone who could explain their views clearly and was seen to be helping the people they are meant to be representing.
Suzie, England

The only point in giving donations is to try to influence the election, and by definition the policies of the following government. What is clearly wrong is that a few people should wield disproportionate influence. Introduce some form of centralised funding and cap individual donations to be a small fraction of the national average wage with only people resident for tax purposes eligible. No taxation without representation, and no representation without taxation.
Mick, UK

Where else are these ailing parliamentary parties going to get their funding?

D. McCarthy, Australia
Let's face it where else are these ailing parliamentary parties going to get their funding? Ever declining party membership means fewer funds from traditional methods. The facts are, neither Labour nor the Tories are ever going to sell their pitiful policies to the public because they stand for nothing whatsoever. Hence the majority don't vote and are effectively removed from the process. The biggest threat to democracy is the complete lack of ideas and competing visions the main parties have for the future. Multi-million donations from an individual is just a sad symptom not cause of this deep-rooted threat to democracy.
D. McCarthy, Australia

NO! No party should be beholden to anyone for more than a few percent of their budget. And we certainly shouldn't allow funding of political parties by the European Union's institutions! That's definitely against the principle of "subsidiarity" - or non-interference in local matters!!
Dave, Expat in Belgium

I have no problems with individuals donating money to parties (in this case it was Mr Wheeler in a personal capacity, not his business) providing they are declared.
Mark, UK

Why does this argument arise when the Tories receive money and not when Labour receives donations.
John Stapleman, UK

What's good for one is good for the other, no one said anything when the labour party got Sainbury's money?
T. Cousins, UK

If people are silly enough to give money voluntarily to politicians to fund their activities then let them

Derek Thornton, UK
If people are silly enough to give money voluntarily to politicians to fund their activities then let them. There's no way our taxes should be used. Indeed, one has to question why we should pay politicians' salaries. It doesn't give us quality people doing a quality job.
Derek Thornton, UK

Here in the states, major corporations will donate equally huge sums of money to both the major parties, so that no matter who wins the election, those corporations will get theirs in return when he takes office. This is not democracy, nor it is a government of, by and for the people, by any stretch of the imagination. The "minor" parties like the libertarians, the Greens, etc get no recognition and aren't allowed to debate because they don't have a large enough percentage of public support.

But in the end who cares if the campaign budgets are drastically slashed? Do we really need all of the lies and propaganda we're subjected to? Maybe if politicians/parties had much less money to play with, we'd see them quickly and concisely address real issues rather than throw so much cash away on glitzy, empty advertising that only serves to taint the process of democracy.
Maya, US

It is a good thing that members of the public support political parties. The presentation and professional management of political parties is vital for a healthy democracy. So long live Wheeler, Ashcroft, Hamlyn etc. They do a great job for British politics. The Government could encourage "ordinary" people donating to political parties by making donations exempt from tax like with charitable giving...just a thought Tony.
Crom Bloom, UK

Why would a private company give money to Labour or the Tories? How does it benefit their shareholders, unless they expect to get favourable treatment from the party they donate to? Businesses with millions of pounds to spare are generally not stupid, perhaps Tory and Labour politicians who accept these donations thinking nothing is expected in return are! Labour and the Tories should follow the Lib Dem example, and only accept donations from individuals.
Andrew Makinson, UK

Just publish your manifesto and stand or fall by it

Edward, UK
I would be interested to hear from anyone who had ever changed their intended vote because of an advertising campaign. It is all money down the drain. Just publish your manifesto and stand or fall by it.
Edward, UK

Why not reduce the ceiling for election spending drastically and limit individual donations to 100. Maybe that way there might be some hope of hearing an alternative point of view at election time, rather than three parties vying to be the chosen representative of big business.

Who wants state funding? Politicians privately maybe, because it gives them a gravy train. The electorate probably not - what Labour supporter is going to want his or her tax money going to the Conservatives or Liberals (or Sinn Fein for that matter?). The status quo is preferable, as long as full disclosure is the rule - every donation should be visible, from the smallest upwards. That way, the public can see what is going on and make up their own mind as to what is right.
James, UK

Political parties should be able to receive donations, but they shouldn't know from whom the donations have come. That way they wouldn't be beholden to the donor. I wonder how many big businesses would still donate if that were the case?
Justin Steed, Sweden

It's all a part of showbiz, which is what politics has become

Ken Hargraves, England
The political parties need all the money they can get because advertising costs so much. It's all a part of showbiz, which is what politics has become.
Ken Hargraves, England

If a millionaire wishes to donate millions of pounds to a political party that is entirely their own business. However, I can't help but think of how much good such sums of money would do if they were used to directly fund specific social or humanitarian projects. Giving the money to a political party to spend on advertising is as much use as throwing it into a bonfire.
Richard, UK

It's a you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours affair

Max Hess, UK
Profit-making businesses and individuals do not make million-pound donations to parties without expecting something in return. Would the super rich given parties millions if they had taken, or were likely to take, policy decisions that damaged rather than improved their business affairs? It's a you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours affair.
Max Hess, UK

What's good for the labour party is good for the other political parties and until some other system of funding is devised how else can the opposition mount an effective campaign at the general election. After all do we really want to become a one party state?
Chris W, UK

If someone has money, they should be allowed to spend it as they choose. Anything else is less than democracy.
Alex, NZ (ex-pat)

Politics is being strangled by show business

Rachel Tyrrell, England
Why do political parties need substantial amounts of money to win an election? It's because they need to be able to put on the best show. Politics is being strangled by show business and it is sick.
Rachel Tyrrell, England

Private funding of political parties is one of the main ways that rule by the rich is dressed up as "democracy". Parties that represent the interests of working people are never blessed with zillionaire friends, so they never get a fair and equal chance to put their policies and ideas to the electorate. If parties received funding in proportion to their voting support, capitalists would find it harder to present their tame parties as the only alternatives. So fair, democratic, party funding is not allowed by the ruling class.
Brendan Tuohy, Aotearoa/ New Zealand

I think state funding should be considered. It would cost a tiny amount relatively speaking and would be worth it to guarantee political impartiality. I have been disgusted by the massive donations to the Tories and Labour recently. No one seriously believes that these people don't expect a payoff of some sort. The party I support, the Lib Dems, doesn't take any money from business, rich individuals who constantly swap allegiances or from the unions. We take money only from bona fide members. It costs us dearly but it's worth it to maintain our independence.
Stephen Psallidas, UK

It is common knowledge that when political parties, ruling or in the opposition, receive donations, huge ones in particular, towards the cost of conducting polls in any country, they are naturally obliged to help the donors in more ways than one after the new government takes over. This kind of donation inevitably breeds corruption, vitiating the democratic process. When politicians thus become corrupt by succumbing to temptation, can we expect the bureaucracy or judiciary to be a silent spectator? Sooner or later they too join the unholy bandwagon. At this stage, the helpless man in the street doesn't wish to be left out. The only reasonable alternative would be for respective Governments the world over to fund the polls. The only disadvantage here is that voters would have to be taxed heavily to raise the huge resources necessary for this purpose, unless the rich are prepared to pay for the poor.
Albert Devakaram, India

Political endorsements will occur whether the public wants them to or not. In the absence of clear and concise manifestos, with neither party having much to recommend them, I would suggest that party funding is the way forward. Let's see if Stuart Wheeler and friends with their wealth and therefore influence over a party will flag up any policies that may sway the electorate from sitting on the fence between dumb and dumber!!
Rebecca Southwell, UK

The only alternative would be central funding

Mark B, UK
The only alternative would be central funding, organised by the state, for political campaigning. I doubt very much whether the 2 main parties would allow that to happen. If the status quo survives, then disclosure of all large donations is the only answer. I would like to know how Stuart Wheeler became a millionaire businessman, given he is prepared to donate to such a hopeless cause as the Conservatives!
Mark B, UK

As long as the details of all large donors are published regularly then in my opinion the electorate is sophisticated enough to decide whether or not a particular political party is beholden to these donors by the policies and priorities they pursue.
Andy Freeman, UK

I don't wish to see private donations replaced with public funding; that would make political parties even more alienated from the public than they are already, but clearly such large individual donations carry the taint of corruption about them. In my view there ought to be a yearly ceiling on donations of 10,000 so that parties are forced to recruit a mass membership in order to raise money - which will in turn make them more democratically responsive.
Jonathan Slater, UK

Let's keep the costs down!

Richard P, England
Fundamentally, having a small number of large donors (anonymous or otherwise) for a political party at least presents the possibility of power being bought and thus should be controlled. However, it is surely only right and proper that ALL those who wish to stand for election should have the same opportunity to get their views heard regardless of who is bankrolling them. As a taxpayer I am quite happy for some of my taxes to be set aside to enable us to have a more equitable system for funding elections. But let's keep the costs down! 20 million seems a rather high bill.
Richard P, England

As long as we, the voters, are influenced by sound bite and spin rather than wanting to listen to reasoned debate on the hustings, then large war chests are needed by political parties to pay for airtime and adverts.
Gerry, Scotland

In the US, the Libertarian Party won't take personal donations over 100 Dollars and they won't take government money. We should take a leaf out of their book and limit contributions to personal ones of 100 Pounds with no state money and no corporate or trade union contributions. That'd mean that the parties wouldn't be able to subject us to mailshots and incessant advertising, but all they really need is a few minutes on TV to tell us their policies. Let's be serious about limiting contributions and take the nonsense out of electioneering.
Mike Holmes, Scotland

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See also:

18 Jan 01 | UK Politics
I gain nothing - 5m Tory donor
04 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Donations mark start of election battle
18 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Stuart Wheeler: 5 million man
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