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Do donations buy votes?

02/03/2010

Not only do the Tories have more money, thanks to Ashcroft and others, their campaign spending also counts for more than Labour’s. But the Lib Dems are getting the best deal…

Images by Gagilas and psd

Update 4 March 2010: Lord Ashcroft’s donations to the Conservatives are legal, but leading Tories are still stating that although he runs a unit in the Conservative central office targeting marginal seats, the money he donates no longer dominates in the way it once did. But how much do donations matter to elections anyway?

Indeed the Tories’ funding is now much more stable. It comes from many different sources, and in the last three months of 2009 they raised double the money that Labour managed (over £10 million to Labour’s £5 million and the Liberal Democrats’ £1 million). Labour have lost much ground in recent years –five years ago they were spending more than the Conservatives on elections, but this year they’ll be lucky to have £10 million to spend whilst David Cameron’s party apparently expect to spend £25 million (with a large chunk of that having to be funnelled through local Conservative associations to avoid going over the legal limit on election expenditure). With questions over whether the potential effects of recent expensive Conservative advertising campaigns have been diminished by parodies and negative press (they certainly haven’t stopped the poll ratings declining), how much do donations matter to electoral success?

On the face of it, it seems that more funding and more votes often go along together. During the 1980s the Conservatives were widely perceived as having access to a lot more money, but Labour seemed to catch up and in the early 2000s were winning elections on the back of more funding than their opponents. The point in early 2006 at which the Conservatives started consistently polling better than Labour is the same period during which they started getting more in donations. They’ve had consistently more money since then, especially during election periods.

If we assume that donations help to win votes, the real winners are the Lib Dems, who have only received 8% of all donations to parties since 2001 but consistently receive more than double that in terms of the popular vote1. However, at least in recent years their largest share of the vote also coincided with a period of much higher donations – the first quarter of 2005. These correlations are interesting, but without any obvious time lapse it is very difficult to establish causality – it is probably more likely that more donations are the result of greater party support.

Political scientists have modelled the relationship to try to gain more insights. They have usually found that extra spending does generally help electoral success, but that it primarily helps the challenging party rather than the incumbents2. The landslide of 1997 is a good example – even though the Conservatives spent £20 million to Labour’s £13 million, provoking Blair to curb election spending and make donations transparent, the novelty of the New Labour brand meant their campaigning dwarfed any advertising budget promoting ‘more of the same’ from the Conservatives.

This time, of course, the tables are turned. The Tories have argued, as every challenger tends to, that the incumbent government’s use of the civil service and government budgets means campaign funding is not a true reflection of expenditure. This could be true, but there is little evidence that it is significant, and of course this money cannot be channelled on such a grand scale into marginal seats or negative campaigning.

If Labour not only have less to spend, but also each of their pounds spent count for less than each Tory pound, their MPs and activists should be worried. There will be a great deal more money being channelled into marginal campaigns by Ashcroft’s unit, and the effects of spending up to now may not yet have been seen. The current downwards trend in Conservative support could easily be turned around, and they stand to gain much from promoting their brand if they can show they are a novel choice.

Notes:
1: Despite their low funding levels, the Liberal Democrats received 18.3% in the 2001 general election, 22.1% in 2005. In comparison, over the last 9 years Labour and the Conservatives have received 43% and 42% of all donations to political parties, with their poll ratings usually between 30 and 40% – so if campaign spending does buy support, Lib Dem donors get more votes for their money.

2: See the research by Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie here and here, as well as Woojin Moon‘s work.

I’ve used the Electoral Commission’s data on funding and the BBC’s poll tracker throughout this post.

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