Vouchers: a third way for financing political parties

You got your public funding in my private donations! No, you got your private donations in my public funding!

The debate around financing of political parties is caught up between two alternatives, each of which possess seemingly intractable problems, but a third way might be surfacing in the US.

On the one hand, the status quo – of uncapped donations – has terrible consequences. It leads to capture by interest groups (stereotypically Labour by the unions and the Conservatives by big business, and like many stereotypes, there is an element of truth), is anti-democratic (contrary to what the US Supreme Court proclaims, money is not speech, yet if you have more money than I do, it's not hard to imagine which of us gets more say in policy) and has ended up in outright corruption (witness, amongst other things, "I'm like a cab for hire", "premier league" donors, or cash for honours).

Unfortunately, the major alternative model has its own problems. State funding of political parties runs the risk of creating an unaccountable political class, paid from the pocket of general taxation while owing nothing in return. It also entrenches the existing trio of parties in their roles, rendering our already distortionary electoral system immune, to all intents and purposes, to change. And, of course, it would be expensive.

The purported "middle ground" of capping donations, meanwhile, seems unworkable politically, while solving none of the problems. If unions are counted singly, Labour won't sign up. If they aren't, the Tories won't. The cap won't be low enough to prevent some donors still having  outsized influence, and yet it won't be high enough to prevent some or all of the parties suffering major financial hardship.

But a number of American campaign finance experts, including Yale's Bruce Ackerman and Harvard's Lawrence Lessig, support a third way. The idea is that every voter is given a voucher for $50, to donate to a political actor as they see fit – it can go to parties or candidates, mainstream or independents, and it doesn't have to be used at all. In exchange, candidates who want to accept the money must agree to stricter rules. Ackerman suggests mandatory donor anonymity (to prevent "influence peddling"), while Lessig suggests a cap on any individual donation of just $100.

WonkBlog's Dylan Matthews reports that the idea has just been given a boost. John Sarbanes (son of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act's Paul Sarbanes) is planning on introducing the Grassroots Democracy Act to Congress:

The bill has three components. The first is a voucher of the kind Ackerman, Ayres and Lessig endorse, implemented as a $50 refundable tax credit for congressional donations, so even people who do not make enough to pay income taxes are eligible. The second is a matching system, where campaigns that reject PAC money will get $5 from a public fund for every private donation of $1, and those that agree to collect only small contributions receive $10 from the public fund for every private dollar. The third is a fund to provide support to candidates who are facing heavy third-party expenditures from super PACs and other groups, to make sure they aren’t drowned out.

Some of the side-effects of such a reform would be positive, as well. Most interestingly, it introduces a form of PR into the electoral system. Every "vote" using a voucher has the same effect, whether it goes to Labour or the Monster Raving Loony Party, and it is impossible to "waste" it. And depending how widely the vouchers can be used, it could allow people to donate to issue groups as well as parties, meaning that organisations like the Electoral Reform Society could see a boost in their funding.

Of course, the one thing it doesn't ensure is that the balance of power is conserved. For that, parties would be advised to look elsewhere. But MPs who are serious about party funding reform may want to consider a similar move.

Barack Obama. The president elected not to take public funding because he had so many private donations. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.