It’s not often that a working paper published on an academic website creates a stir, but it seems ours has! As the Guardian Observer reports, our paper shows that for the number of big donors being nominated for positions in the UK’s House of Lords to be coincidental, it would be the equivalent of entering the National Lottery five times in a row and winning the jackpot each time. 1 in 22 Tory big donors, 1 in 14 Labour big donors, and 1 in 7 Lib Dem big donors, have been nominated for a peerage (a position in the House of Lords). Rumors have abounded in the vicinity of Westminster for some time that party leaders exchanged patronage for political financing, but denying that claim just got a whole lot harder. Calls for a wholly elected UK Second Chamber must now be deafening. However, while elections are less prone to corruption than a system of appointment, we can’t stop there. Developed democracies need to rethink the role of public financing in elections if they are going to eliminate private favors and serve the public good.

Critics might argue that a few shady characters shouldn’t be spun into a general lesson. However, by using a statistical analysis across time, across governments, and across different party leaders, we show that there is a structural problem—not a case of the corruption of a few individuals. This is the first time that academics have been able to show a direct link between donations and power over voting on specific laws, but, by adding to a literature that all points in the same direction, our work is also a window on a larger issue facing all developed democracies: inequality in economic power means that our political class responds to the wishes of the rich, not the average voter. This should worry voters in Los Angeles as much as in London, Brussels as much as in Bristol.

Of course, we’re not the first to tackle the subject: academics and activists have been doing their best to sound the alarm for the last few years. Scholars like Joshua Kalla and David Brookman have shown that Congressional staffs are more likely to meet with people claiming to be donors rather than humble constituents who don’t mention that they pony up cash. Page, Bartels and Seawright look at the political preferences of the very richest and suggest that their political power is the reason why policy outcomes differ from what the general public want. And Martin Gilens utilizes a range of statistical models to argue that when preferences of low- or middle-income Americans diverge from those of the affluent, there is virtually no relationship between policy outcomes and the desires of less advantaged groups. The lesson from all this is clear: democratic equality is underpinned by a system that actively inoculates itself from economic power. Citizens United was a direct attack on America’s values of all men being created equal. The UK’s private funding system lends itself to abuse at worst and enormous undue influence at best. And people who wonder, “Why Isn’t Wall Street in jail?” might not need to ponder too hard if those who rigged markets are insuring themselves by also rigging our politics.

Despite its obvious ramifications, the issue of money in politics has been seen as something of an obsession of good-government liberals. An issue for nerds more than for those concerned with the everyday struggles of working people. But what so many of those people fail to appreciate is that election financing is the root issue of so many of the other issues we are passionate about. Care about the environment? Good luck with the Koch Brothers spending hundreds of millions to defeat candidates who propose that agenda. Think workers should find it easier to organize and fight for fair wages? Well, there’s big money lined up to oppose you on that wherever you live. And we’ve long known that Big Money has done its best to hijack the debate on education.

So what is to be done? The only thing that can defeat big money on this scale is people-power on an even greater scale. The issue of money in politics has to go from being one of many issues to the seminal issue. A litmus test for any candidate we support. Certainly, Hillary Clinton’s links to Wall Street and her failure to disclose donations to her foundation should cause real anger and not just another resigned sigh. But there is no need to start a social movement from scratch or attack the problem from only one angle. Two groups out there in the U.S. are working in tandem to fight back for the people against the power. MayDay is the brainchild of Professor Lawrence Lessig, perhaps the most prominent face of the fight against political corruption. The “SuperPac to end SuperPacs” is aiming to back politicians on a bipartisan basis that will vote to turn the tide against the revolving door of big money bagmen and politicians in D.C. Organizing for the 2016 Congressional elections starts now. WolfPac have been raising money, organizing volunteers, and trying to change the system by passing a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Quietly they have lobbied State Assemblies and Senates in California, New Hampshire, Vermont and others to call for a Constitutional Conventional to reform the system once and for all. Both deserve to succeed.

A movement for change in the UK has been less conspicuous. Perhaps this latest blow to the status quo will allow reformers from all parties and none to support The Electoral Reform Society’s call for a Constitutional Convention in the UK to reform her moribund institutions that have so often been found unfit for purpose. If not, it won’t be for lack of very firm evidence.

Further Reading

Image Credit: Oliver Quinlan from Flickr

About The Author

Avatar photo
PhD International Relations

Simon Radford is Hippo’s Academic Correspondent in International Relations and a Provost’s Fellow in USC’s Political Science and International Relations program. He was a candidate in the 2005 General Election in the U.K. and has worked as a political consultant in the United States and with democratic groups throughout the world.