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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder