Why an army of small donors isn't all good news

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceMy latest column for the Ham & High is about the US Presidential election:

I shall go to the ball! I have been invited (along with hundreds of others) to the American Embassy for Presidential election night. Obama versus McCain – what a roller-coaster ride and political battle of the first order that has been – and maybe still is as McCain marginally closes the gap opened up by Obama in the last couple of weeks.

To be frank – I was a Hillary supporter – and I have my doubts about some of the policies Obama has pushed, such as the possibility of unilateral US military intervention in Pakistan. But compared with McCain – Obama is vastly preferable.

What has really surprised me though is the relative poor quality of the Presidential debates. I’ve watched them and been disappointed each time as both Obama and McCain failed to really deliver. I can’t say that they particularly articulated a vision which appealed to me – but then I am not an American.

I understand the desire for change Obama in particular is trying to tap in to – anyone must be better than George W Bush! Deep in my waters I fear an appeal based too heavily on being new and young – maybe to do with sub-conscious memories of T Blair. But more optimistically – maybe he really is the business. I just hope he wins!

Much of the coverage has been about the sites of both campaigns – and Obama’s in particular – putting together huge networks of supporters for their campaigns. Of course – with a population six times ours, the numbers are bound to be huge by our standards!

I think there is also a very big question mark about whether the ranks of small donors is really the good thing it is normally painted as. Certainly – lots of small donors is better than a few big donors, but the US has for decades had pretty tight limits on the maximum size of donations. And as for the small donors – my reading of events is that in the US people tend to give money rather than time to campaigns, whilst in the UK it is more a matter of giving time than money.

Reading accounts of people helping with door knocking and leaflet drops in the US, I think many UK political activists can only look on with envy at the relatively short lists of doors and short delivery runs compared with what is usual over here.

And given the choice – I’d rather have a political system that makes use of people’s time than money, as that makes for a healthier democracy. Of course you need both – but we shouldn’t be blind to the drawbacks of a system that is so heavily based on building up lists of donors – and then spending the money on advertising – rather than time on the streets communicating with the public. This isn’t just a theoretical issue – because going through Parliament is another round of proposed changes to how politics and political finance is regulated.

The first steps of the debate in Parliament has spun around and around as the Tories slag off the union’s financial support for Labour and Labour slag off the Michael Ashcroft money that is buying Tories marginal seats.

No wonder the British people have such a poor view of us politicians – as our spokesperson, David Howarth said eloquently to both Labour and Tory benches: stop such narrow, internal navel gazing and petty point-scoring for a moment’s media coverage as either the unions or Ashcroft is reviled. Just think what this looks like to the people out there. It is everything they think and hate about us – carrying on the narrow political battle when the crisis of confidence in democracy is raging to the point where people have no faith in politicians or even democracy any longer.

We Liberal Democrats voted against the Bill at second reading because it doesn’t deal with the cancer that eats away at the body politic. There are bits of the Bill that are OK – that improve little bits of the funding process – but it is just tinkering. If we want the people to once more have confidence in politics, politicians and democracy – then Labour have missed this enormous opportunity to restore public confidence in democracy.

0 thoughts on “Why an army of small donors isn't all good news

  1. From what I’ve read, Obama has been successful in not just getting a large number of small donors, but also in getting more people involved in the election. His ground organisation is very impressive and relies on a large number of volunteers. If delivery runs etc are a little shorter, that’s probably to encourage more people to get involved. Let’s face it, someone doing two delivery runs of 125 leaflets is better than one delivery run of 200 houses.

  2. In the US delivery is a federal offence. Seriously. They regard it as tampering with the mail. Volunteers mostly just cold-call people although the do have “fieldwork” (canvassing and street stalls).No US politician will ever appeal to the UK because their entire political spectrum is skewed so far to the right of ours. The hard right of the Tory party is still to the left of the “crazy” left of the Democrats (NHS? Communism! – the phrase British style healthcare is used by all sides as an insult). In the same way even the most left wing of British politicians would be considered unpallateably right-wing in most of continental and Scandinavian Europe so even the most reformist US candidate is too right wing for us to stomach.That said we are right to be excited about Obama because he is new and different. Any other result would represent the same-old-same old (particularly a Hillary victory – She has already had 8 years in the White House during which the US committed war crimes in Sudan, Somalia, Kosovo and Iraq whilst simultaneously allowing the Rwandan genocide to take place unchecked, letting Israel walk all over Oslo and allowing world war 3 to break out in Congo).I’ve read Obama’s book and to be honest I disagree with him on almost every substantive point. But I was convinced that he was an honest and moral man trying to do his best for the people he served. If he wins he’ll be the first President to be that since FDR.