Westminster Foundation for Democracy spoke with Peter Wardle, former Chief Executive at the UK’s Electoral Commission, on his work summing up our research on the cost of politics.
Peter’s synthesis report is available here. There are some tickets remaining for July 18th‘s Cost of Politics event, where Peter will sum up his findings.
Peter, you’ve written the synthesis paper summing up the findings from WFD’s six research papers looking at the ‘cost of politics’ in Macedonia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Ghana and Uganda. What exactly is the problem that all these countries face?
What we’re starting with here is the age-old issue of money and politics. I think no-one’s starry-eyed about this. Politics takes resources – whether to organise parties, develop policies or communicate positions to voters. But I think the problem we’ve seen in these particular cases is that when the cost of getting elected gets too high, or gets so high that most people could never contemplate it, you get a range of problems.
What sort of problems might they be?
They could include the complete dominance of the political scene by those with the resources to be there – and coupled with that, the exclusion of huge groups and numbers of the population. This then leads to corruption – either because these are the wrong kind of people going into politics in the first place, or because elected politicians need to recoup the investment they’ve made, which gets in the way of almost everything else.
That doesn’t sound good.
No – the combination of all that leads to the diminution of democracy. You have MPs focused more on their personal financial position than on their role as constituents and national representatives, or on their parliamentary role in terms of holding the executive to account. And you get big, wealthy individuals dominating at the cost of less powerful, less well-represented groups.
Which areas of this research are breaking new ground?
Looking at the six countries, we’ve divided it into three distinct phases. There’s the cost of getting on to the ballot paper in the first place; the cost of campaigning to be elected; the cost of being an MP; and then it all starts again with re-election. What struck me most was that while there is a reasonable amount of research and understanding around that second phase, on the formal election campaign, what is often overlooked are the costs of getting selected. In all the countries we’ve looked at, individuals face immediate and very significant financial challenges. There’s a lot of risk that favours granted at that stage may be called in when the candidate reaches parliament.
And it’s when a candidate becomes elected that they face further costs and challenges?
Yes – then there are the costs associated with success. If you end up with a seat in parliament as an MP, in many societies you face a public expectation that you – regarded as a rich and prominent figure – will put your hand into your pocket. That brings additional financial burdens which, if you’re not wealthy, could lead to temptation to seek cash from other sources. You might try to divert state funds. Once you’re in parliament, it’s quite easy to cross the line between responding to demands, and then making offers with a view to re-election.
At the same time, once you’re in parliament and you’ve experienced the very high cost of getting there, you face a difficult moral dilemma – what incentive do you have to make the political system cheaper for your potential opponents in the future?
What surprised you most as you read through these reports?
The sheer cost that individuals face before the election campaign even starts, and after they’ve been elected. Although I was aware of the issue, I wasn’t aware of the scale. The research papers really bring that out very well.
You say ‘sheer scale ‘ – what sort of numbers are we talking about here?
We haven’t got the data yet; one of the recommendations is for further research into this. But we know that in Ukraine, you’re getting into an estimated cost of millions of US dollars to secure a parliamentary seat in some of the most hotly contested constituencies. In other cases, there are estimates that the cost of a vote is about a day’s supply of food. What is clear is that in all of the countries, the idea that you give a voter money or goods in return for your vote is very firmly entrenched. That is particularly corrupting of public discourse and democracy, because it reduces an election to a transaction, rather than any meaningful debate.
How do you see this issue fitting in with the broader global anti-corruption agenda?
It does seem from this research that you can make a link between the incentive to engage in some of the manifestations of corruption – misuse of state resources, awarding contracts or determining policies in ways that favour particular interests – and the fact that as a politician you are either yourself heavily invested or you are reliant on sponsors who have put you there. They will expect corrupt behaviour as a payback from their investment.
So if we can do something about the high cost of politics, then two things potentially can flow from it. First, we can reduce the incentive for people to respond to demand to engage in those sorts of corrupt practices. Secondly, we can make the political scene more accessible to people who might be coming into politics for purer reasons.
What, then, can we do to tackle the high cost of politics?
The first recommendation – which chimes very well with the agenda of Westminster Foundation for Democracy – is to help political parties rediscover their role. They should move away from being no more than vote-winning machinery, and rediscover their role as a broader-based public organisation which is looking for the good of the nation, the good of the citizens. I think that the British political party tradition has a lot to offer, particularly to some of the countries that still look to Britain as a good model for democracy, to say a political party can and should be much more than simply a vote-winning, and even a vote-buying machine.
Coupled with that, there needs to be some focus on the funding of political parties. There are two aspects of that. One is the question of whether there is a case for public funding. Interestingly, following an upward spiral in the cost of politics, Ukraine has cracked down very significantly, and is not only putting in place legislation to try and curb the spending, but is also offering in return a greater element of public subsidy for political parties, recognising that properly functioning political parties are a public good. There is a topic there that deserves kicking around.
There also needs to be more effective regulation of the money coming into, and being spent by, political parties. Most of the countries have got reasonably good regulations on paper, but have great difficulty in implementing them in practice.
What about another of your synthesis report’s recommendations, around campaigning and elections?
There is an issue here around advertising and the media. Countries with a weak and ineffective media force politicians to look at paid advertising, because otherwise there is no real opportunity to get their messages across, on broadcast or otherwise. Continuing work to build a stronger, more confident media in many of these countries, which recognises particularly the role of the media at election time to present the arguments in a more balanced way, is important. One of the other things the UK has to offer, and is of great interest to people overseas, is the concept of free broadcasting at election time. We effectively offer that, as a compensation for our ban on paid political advertising in the broadcast media.
How do we address the question of private sponsorship paying for travel, logistics and security?
This is slightly easier – it’s an area where public subsidy to campaigners or parties could be a useful way of reducing their reliance on private sponsorship. For example, if you’re campaigning in Nigeria, you face a difficult security situation but need to get out to rural areas. It’s an expensive operation. What role could the state resources take in helping people simply get access to voters, rather than it being an incredibly expensive proposition from the outset?
How do we establish this, though?
Well, the third group of recommendations is around further research which can help address some of the tantalising frustrations about there being very little transparency about the costs that go into getting elected. We’ve already done a lot based on interviews with politicians and others involved in each country – some of this is essentially anecdotal, but there have also been some pretty impressive efforts by civil society organisations to do some proxy monitoring. A really important next stage in this area is to get some further rigorous research into particularly those first and third stages, pre-election and the cost of being an MP. If we can get a better handle on those costs, and how they contribute to the corruption problems that we think we can see linked to them, we’ll be in a strong position to keep pushing this issue up the overall governance agenda.