The Eastleigh by-election hangover has left the country with a UKIP headache. The news that they narrowly beat the conservatives to second place (behind Labour) has not left the headlines but in the run up to the entire country’s local elections on 2nd May we start to wonder what this will translate to in other parts of the UK. Will the Eurosceptic party dominate most places in the upcoming local elections, via media coverage or their well-funded campaign? Or will we see other smaller parties rise to the challenge and up their campaign-game?
In regards to the latter premise, probably not. Campaigning costs money and that’s generally something that smaller parties don’t have. They might be chock-full of active, passionate members, yes, but rarely do they have a queue of millionaire donors. Unless of course your party was is lead by Nigel Farage, who in 2009 openly boasted about taking £2m from taxpayers money during his time as an MEP and proudly said he used it to ‘spread UKIP’s message to the British public’. You would be forgiven for thinking that MEPs expenses are not supposed to be used for personal political motives, simply for transport and food costs in situations when his £64,000 salary wasn’t enough.
But while UKIP shamelessly spends its questionable fortune on expensive election campaigns, other small parties such as the Green Party, the National Health Alliance or Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition are shaking their tins and asking their squeezed supporters for every last penny to buy just one more poster. Is this a product of democracy? Should it be a burden of the taxpayer to ensure all parties have the resources they need to fund a campaign? Even a campaign for the BNP?
It would be ideal to give each political party the same amount of pocket money from the magical pot of government finance to spend on pretty posters, but where does that money come from? Would you be happy to see your taxes spent on BNP propaganda, because they would have as much right to the kitty as the Greens? Probably not, no. So, back to square one, where funding an election campaign is the responsibility of parties and their members. In other words, successful election campaigns rely on which party can raise the most money, and who can buy their way in.
Of course the results of elections are not entirely down to the advertising campaigns or largest banners – the opinion of the general public does actually stretch beyond the sparkliest poster. Policies, manifestos and personalities are still considered the elements that win an election. But what happens when you can’t afford the £500 deposit to stand a candidate in a ward in the first place?
According to a report by the Electoral commission in just one month before the 2010 general election, the Lib Dems received £724,000 in donations, Labour £5,283,199 and the Conservatives a whopping £7,317,602. That is in just one month. Lets look at the Green party’s yearly annual income, a modest £770,495. Of course larger parties have larger overheads, more employees, more rates, more bills. But when one party’s yearly budget for all campaigns is 10% of what another party gains in a month, questions should be asked about the handling of political funding in a democracy. It’s important to understand that this inequality translates into local terms.
The small branch of the Green party in Hampshire understand this translation. On the 2nd of May they will be standing a handful of paper candidates but only one of those will receive real financial support behind their campaign. One person, in one ward. How can the Green party broadcast their message if they can’t afford to stand candidates in every ward?
On the flip side, one might argue that the parties with the most popular policies will have the most donations and therefore get elected. That sounds fair, right? But it’s not a case of everyone giving a quid to who they like best. The UK has been a source of political finance controversy for years. Dodgey donations to British parties are always hitting the headlines. Lets not forget the hefty undeclared donations from millionaires who want their say in what goes on. Since 2007, property developer David Abrahams has donated more than £600,000 to Labour, undeclared. He’s just one person.
We are voting with our wallets and since my wallet is much smaller than Mr Abrahams, my vote is rendered insignificant. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to fund pretty election campaigns, but they shouldn’t have to pay the price of democracy either.