The issue of party funding cannot be separated from party spending. The amount of money spent at general elections seems a complete anathema to most people.
The restrictions on radio and television advertisements are a very good thing in our society as they have prevented the sort of explosion in spending that we have seen in the US. However, the media world has changed and in the past decade, there has been a huge increase in outdoor advertising, such as billboards, ambient media and print advertising. It may be worth revisiting the restrictions on advertising in order to cover these newer media. Otherwise we will not engage people more in politics but instead, encourage an arms race in which one party spends £5 million on billboards and the other feels it has to do likewise.
I have yet to meet a voter who is convinced by a billboard to vote in a particular way. When I speak to people, I often find that personal engagement is most effective. That was also what I found when I was a marketing manager. Face-to-face marketing is the most impactful. It is not necessarily the most expensive method but if one is going to get volunteers to knock on doors, it is incredibly resource intensive.
I am sure that I am not the only canvasser to have knocked on a person’s door and be told, “Do you know, you are the first politician that has ever come and knocked on my door?” Though we are delighted to have knocked on their door, equally we feel bad for the thousands of other householders to whom we will not be able to speak. Even in my constituency, which was a Liberal Democrat target seat, we did not knock on every door. I would be surprised if there were many constituencies where parties are able to do that. That is a result of the decline in political membership and participation.
Given that situation, I am attracted by the ways in which we could use party funding to put right what is wrong with our political system and to start to engage people better in democracy. The Power Report makes a good recommendation by proposing a voucher scheme whereby when casting a vote, one can tick a box to donate £3 each year to the party of one’s choice. Interestingly, that may not be the party for which one votes. With our rather warped first-past-the-post electoral system, people in many constituencies will choose to give their vote to a party that has a good chance of winning, though they may have an affiliation with a different party. This would give them the choice to vote for the result they want but in the meantime to support the development of a party they may think is not yet ready to govern or to win the election.
Such a system would give an incentive to parties to engage at the local level. It is a great shame that that has been lost from the current system of party funding. The other advantage of such a system is that it would provide voters with a choice. Some people have suggested that there may not be public support for state funding of parties but this would at least give people the choice of ticking the box or leaving it blank. The match funding ideas are also worth looking at. It is vital that we deal with the issue properly so as to encourage more participation and to have a healthy political system.
Jo Swinson is the MP for East Dunbartonshire and the Liberal Democrat Shadow Scottish Secretary.