THE BLOG
19/02/2015 12:46 GMT | Updated 21/04/2015 06:59 BST

Deal or No Deal - How to Clean Up Party Funding

Party funding scandals are back in the news, and it's hard not feel a sense of ennui. People are sick to death of the seemingly endless cash-for-influence, cash-for-peerage or cash-for-access headlines.

These have contributed to the situation we are in today, where public faith in parties and politicians is at rock bottom. It's a sad fact that we've grown used to this state of affairs.

Still, the public are angry. Research for the Electoral Reform Society shows that 65% of people believe party donors can effectively 'buy' honours such as knighthoods, while 61% think the whole party funding system itself is corrupt - yes, corrupt. No wonder so few are joining the major parties and that voter turnout has been in long-term decline (with the recent Scottish referendum proving a very honourable exception). Meanwhile, 75% of the public believe big donors have too much influence on our political parties. People are furious - and they want to see change.

Donations over £250,000 accounted for over half of Labour's, a quarter of Conservatives' and a sixth of the Liberal Democrats' donations income between 2001 and 2010. These donations are coming from just 60 'donor groups', giving rise to justifiable suspicion that these groups have far too much influence on our politics. And this serves to reinforce the assumption that politics is increasingly something for a small number of people, and not something for everybody.

Many big donors are quite public about their desire for influence, with (former Conservative now Ukip) donor Stuart Wheeler, among others, suggesting it was 'natural' and unobjectionable that donors would gain policy influence when speaking to a Parliamentary committee last year.

We can't carry on lurching from one scandal to another. We have to get out of this rut. In our new report, 'Deal or No Deal: How to put an end to party funding scandals', we set out three things we have to do to clean up party funding.

The first deals with the big-donor culture that has dominated British politics in recent decades: there needs to be a cap on donations from individual sources - bringing us in line with many other advanced democracies. This would end parties' reliance on a narrow and dwindling band of funders.

At the same time, there's an arms-race going on when it comes to elections. The race to spend more than the rest is leading to increasing reliance on big donors. A considerably lower spending cap (the current one has just been raised by 23%) would level the playing field for all parties.

Finally, we need to talk about public funding for parties. For all their unpopularity, parties remain the lifeblood of democracy, and they play a crucial role in reaching millions of voters at election time.

Giving more money to parties from the public purse isn't such a radical idea. Compared to other European countries, the UK under-invests in parties by a factor of ten - 36p per voter to £3.25 on the rest of the continent.

It would be great if parties could rely entirely on mass party membership and millions of small donations, but - despite advances in this area - it's still a fairly utopian idea. A £10,000 cap on donations would lead to a shortfall of around £30m for the parties - but £47m could be saved by replacing the freepost leaflet system for parties with a joint election address booklet (as happens in London Mayoral and Assembly elections). And if the spending cap is lowered, then parties will be able to get by on less.

It's time we cleaned up party funding once and for all by capping campaign spending and donations, and providing parties with transparent funding. The alternative? Well, the next scandal is just around the corner. Let's not wait for it to happen.

This article first appeared on Shifting Grounds