But I’d like to play devil’s advocate for a moment and propose a (possibly slightly far fetched) counterpoint: why shouldn’t we let parties accept policy suggestions in exchange for donations?
We live in a democracy, in which politicans secure power through means of a popular vote, a vote which depends on the government’s ability to deliver what the people want. If they deliver it, they stay in place. If they don’t, they get voted out.
Let’s imagine for a minute an alternate history in the Cruddas Saga, in which three imaginary things had occured:
1. The newspaper representatives had genuinely been potential donors.
2. That Peter Cruddas did indeed have the power to arrange donor input into Tory policy committees.
3. That the donors had signed up and then provided an idea to the policy committees to consider.
If the idea put forward had been discriminatory, partisan or simply self-serving, then the Tory party would have been nuts to pick it up: their existence in power relies on winning elections, and to do that you need popular support. Advancing an unpopular policy is a sure way to lose support. If however, in a fit of madness, the Tories had decided to accept the bad idea and run with it, then the system’s safety net would have kicked into gear - the policy would have reduced their popularity and decreased their chances of being re-elected. Alternatively, if the idea had been a good or selfless one that resonated with the people, then fine - the people’s will would still have been served (and we got the good advice for free no less!).
Of course, the obvious rebuttal is to argue that the added money provided by political donors would allow a party to mask or gloss its actions through publicity and – dare I say it - propaganda. But this represents an overly pessimistic view. Positive marketing can only go so far – if I’m waiting on a station for a train and it’s running late, it doesn’t matter how many adverts the rail provider plays about their high quality services, I’m still stuck fuming on a station and I’m going to be hacked off.
For those who aren’t yet convinced, consider this – America pumped billions of dollars into supporting Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime in China between 1945 and 1949. But no matter how much money they spent, they were never able to persuade the Chinese public that the regime was not corrupt; that inflation was not rife; that the party was not going to lose the war; and that generally the country was going in the right direction. Money given directly to a ruling party does not guarantee popularity amongst its people.
The model that scares me more is the one where donors offer money directly to the public in exchange for votes (“Vote for my candidate, and I’ll build your community an ice rink. Vote for the other candidate and you’ll get nothing”).
We saw an international relations versus of this in the 2000 when the West offered up the Serbian people a deal: Vote Slobodan Milosevic out and we’ll lift our economic sanctions. Vote him in again, and we’ll keep on squeezing you until the pips squeak. The Serbs promptly voted Milosevic out (okay, there were other reasons too – but the economic…’incentive’…certainly helped!).
So, no, I’m not really afraid of donors being allowed to suggest ideas to party policy committees in exchange for money – any party that follows a policy of accepting and running with ideas that fail to serve the wider country will quickly find themselves voted out of power. The very institution of democracy protects us.
I’ll start worrying instead when the donors turn their attention to us and start offering us cash or other incentives in exchange for our votes directly.