Of nuclear zombie blasters and party funding

Of nuclear zombie blasters and party funding. Reflections on the anti-corruption discourse and party funding reform in Great Britain…

A couple of days ago there was a review on the Global Anti-Corruption Blog (GAB) investigating the recent work done by the Money, Politics and Transparency (MPT) research forum. MPT itself is an offshoot of the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP), headed up by Professor Pippa Norris – and currently hosting the University of Sussex’s very own Miguel Angel Lara Otaola as a visiting researcher. Above all else MPT looks to be an incredibly useful tool for those of us studying money in politics and it really is worth having a poke around the website, they have some fascinating case studies and a few datasets to have a play around with – if that’s your kind of thing.

Amongst all of this they also intend to release an edited volume of initial findings titled Checkbook Elections which contains chapter’s on party finance regimes of eleven different countries supplied by experts in each case (for example, the British chapter is written by Professor Justin Fisher, who – and this is an understatement – is somewhat of an authority on these matters). Prior to its release (sometime in 2016), MPT have released an executive report, a review of which was the main crux of the aforementioned review article on GAB. As the blog outlines the headline findings in the report are as follows:

  1. The limited effects of legal regulations.  “[T]he comparative analysis was unable to establish that the degree of state regulation alone has any significant impact, positive or negative, on long-term societal and political outcomes, including the goals of strengthening political party competition, voter turnout, and anti-corruption.”
  2. The most common reforms in recent years have sought to strengthen disclosure and public funding.
  3. The effects of formal legal reforms are contingent upon enforcement, which in turn depends on regime type, state capacity, and societal cultures. “[L]egal regulations can only prove effective in states with enforcement capability. .  .  .  Even in countries that do have the capacity to enforce regulations, the political will to do so must also be present.”
  4. Mixed policy strategies work best. “[A] balanced mix of regulatory policies to control political finance is probably the most effective strategy, ideally blending a combination of disclosure and transparency requirements, limits on spending and contributions, and public subsidies to political parties.”

The author of the blog, Rick Messick, bemoans that the findings represent ‘thin gruel for reformers hungry for guidance on what works’. Messick somewhat misses the point, however, party funding reform should be seen in very much the same light as we are increasingly seeing anti-corruption reform more generally. We should be wary of the one-size-fits-all panacea which will deliver corruption free party finance, just as we should be wary of one-size-fits-all approaches to anti-corruption. Or to paraphrase Dr. Heather Marquette (who put it rather delightfully if you ask me) in The Guardian this week: there is no nuclear zombie blaster that will eradicate corruption.

This means that to combat corruption in party finance there are a whole range of issues to contend with from ‘regime type [both party funding regime type and actual regime type], state society, and societal cultures’. Therefore, when asking for ‘guidance on what works’ the (sensible) answer is very likely to be ‘well it depends – can I hear a little more about your country specific circumstances?’ This encompasses a wider argument that I have made in numerous places, that state funding has for too long been seen, to those in the party finance reform community in Great Britain, as the nuclear zombie blaster. It is far more helpful to consider not whether a reformed party funding regime will be necessarily less corrupt – but whether it will simply allow for a different type of corruption to become prevalent.

The question of whether state funding is a necessarily less corrupt way of doing things, is something that I have looked at during the course of my research and the answer is (spoiler alert) no. However, there is also the question of whether the current system we have is actually that bad and/or as bad as people think it is? The answer to these questions are (spoiler alert) ‘we don’t really know’ and ‘probably not’. The ‘as bad as people think it is’ question is an important one, and comes up again and again in the transcripts of the public hearings the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) undertook (I’ve read them so you don’t have to) prior to compiling their 2011 report Ending the Big Donor Culture. The answer, more often than not, is something along the lines of: perception of corruption in party finance is so bad, that something should be done because [strong message here] this perception, whether or not it is true, is damaging democracy.

It is also a position that I see repeated in elite interviews during my own research. These hearings, and in many ways party finance reform itself, is a classic example of perception rather than reality guiding, and forming, the policy process. Indeed, to quote Professor Richard Wyn Jones, when appearing before the CSPL, ‘perceptions shape their own reality in politics’. It is of almost no importance whatsoever whether or not the current system is, or is not corrupt, the public think that it is – policy recommendations are being made on the basis that the public think it is – so it may as well be.

Secondly, and coming back to Rick Messick’s blog post (remember that?), this actually may not be all that effective in tackling perceptions of corruption. Messick notes that for him (and I’m inclined to agree) the most important finding in the MPT report is that ‘the level of state interventionism in the political finance arena is not a significant predictor of perceptions of corruption, voter turnout, or party competition’. So ultimately, changing the party funding regime is unlikely to alter perceptions of the party funding regime – or politicians – as corrupt.

So, is there any point in doing anything? Well, yes. For a multitude of reasons – not least because the current system is largely unsustainable in its present form (just ask any former party fundraiser) particularly, due to recent events, for Her Majesty’s Opposition. Further we can’t (and shouldn’t) expect a simple change in the party funding system to act as the cure for what is ultimately a larger, and more general, anti-political sentiment. The evidence from the world of party funding, ultimately, chimes with a growing realisation in the anti-corruption world articulated by Dr. Marquette earlier this week:

“Our childish, simplistic view of corruption has become, like a youngster’s fascination with zombies, simply a manifestation of our fears. A scary word, yet an essentially vague abstraction that speaks to more general worries about unfairness, impunity, abuse of power and waste of scarce public funds… The evidence seems to be telling us we must now start having [a] different, more grown-up conversation on corruption.”

Sam Power, University of Sussex

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