Is It Really That Different Across the Pond?

Despite far stricter campaign finance regulation, the British public is no more satisfied with the state of money in politics than Americans.

April 17, 2015
Houses of Parliament

As the 2016 presidential campaign dawns in America, the sun has begun to set on another race to lead a Western democracy. On May 7, British voters will go to the polls for that nation’s first general election in almost five years.

Reading coverage of both campaigns I was struck by how dramatically different our systems seem to be. When, for example, was the last time a US politician was accused of trying to buy votes by treating constituents to sausage rolls and Jaffa cakes at a tea party featuring a celebrity snooker player nicknamed the Whirlwind? “I'm sure people aren't going to change their mind for a sausage roll," wailed the accused candidate.

As Hillary, Marco, Ted, and Rand head off for the hustings, almost all the press coverage has focused on the polls, the personalities, and the money. Who can blame the press for fixating on campaign fundraising? After all former Clinton and Obama adviser Rahm Emanuel once told a group of campaign staffers: 'The first third of your campaign is money, money, money. The second third is money, money and press. And the last third is votes, press and money.”

However, David and Ed—Cameron and Miliband, leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties respectively, that is—live in a different democracy. 

Of course they worry about money. After all if one could run a political campaign on good ideas and a sprinkling of fairy dust, then Albus Dumbledore would be Prime Minister. So Cameron and Miliband do fret about financing their campaigns.

But the scale is so very, very different. If you’re American, take a deep breath now, because UK campaign spending figures are going to shock you. Political parties in the UK are limited to spending a grand total of £19.5 million, or about $29 million, each during the year of the election. I think the Obama campaign spent more than that on chips and soda in 2012. Actually I checked. The Obama campaign spent $20 million on staging, sound and lighting. It spent $24 million on travel and lodging and almost $26 million on postage. Turns out, the chips and soda budget was a measly $1.5 million.

Look at it another way. To run her upcoming campaign, in every week between now and next November, Hillary Clinton will need to raise the entire budget allocated to the UK Labour Party for a full year of campaigning.

Despite the relatively paltry sums UK candidates and parties can raise and spend in their elections, British voters are as disgusted with money in politics as Americans. Earlier this year, a campaign finance reform group released polling data showing that 75 percent of the British public feel that big donors have too much influence on political parties; 61 percent believe the system is corrupt and needs to be changed.

That’s not too different from US polling, where 75 percent of the American public think the wealthy influence elections more than other Americans and 69 percent say super PACs should be illegal.

UK political scandals are not too different from ours either. Like most good American scandals, they feature cringeworthy and clandestine scrambles for status, money, and power. The British equivalent of the Lincoln bedroom scandal broke in the middle of the last decade when the Labour Party was caught seemingly offering peerages to millionaires in exchange for unreported cash and loans to the party.

Despite sharing a common public disgust with money in politics and an equal share of public scandals to fuel the disgust, the UK differs from the US in one main regard: it’s constitutional structure is far friendlier to aggressive regulation of political spending than that of the US. No Citizens United standing in the way of spending and contribution caps.

Thus the British constitution has sustained spending limits for candidates themselves. Their allowance is a whopping total of £31,150, or about $48,000, plus 7p (11 cents) per elector.

And the UK, it seems, will brook no Adelsons, Kochs, or Soroses. Donors who want to influence elections through direct action are required to register and are limited to £500 ($750) for individual elections and to £793,500 ($1.2 million) for the whole of the election. There are no limits, however, on how much they can give to the parties or individual candidates. This election for example, one former member of Parliament/property magnate personally contributed more than £600,000 ($907,000) to Labour and Liberal Democrat party candidates.

As tight as the limits and rules may seem, there are still plenty of ways to avoid them. The Brits are as skilled at hiding who is behind donations as we are, though I had hoped for cleverer names for their front groups. United & Cecil Club and National Conservative Draws Association just doesn’t quite have the ring of Generation Opportunity or Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.

Despite the combination of public disgust, ample evidence that further regulation is required to close loopholes, and a friendly legal climate, recent efforts to tighten campaign finance laws in the UK have foundered. In 2012, a broad effort to impose donation caps barely made it out of the gate, as all the major political parties simply rejected the initiative.

“The issue is too important to be shelved until the next scandal brings it to the fore. All three parties now depend on very large donations from a small number of rich individuals or organisations. That cannot be healthy for democracy,” Sir Christopher Kelly, the leader of the failed reform push, warned.

I started off saying how very different UK democracy seems, but it turns out maybe not so much. Kelly could have been speaking about America’s system. Unlike the British electorate, though, the American voter has some time before our next major election. Can we do better? Next time I post, I’m going to see what I can do to answer the question. Stay tuned.

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

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(Photo: Flickr/Koltregaskes)