The Overseas Electors Bill is a chance to talk about rooting big money out of politics, says Natalie Bennett.
What should money be able to buy? Not our politics or our cultural institutions, that’s for sure.
Organisations that I respect – including the Electoral Reform Society – are expressing alarm about a bill that in all of the Brexit chaos is proceeding pretty much under the public radar.
It is the Overseas Electors Bill, also known as the “votes for life” bill, which would end the current democratic restriction on Britons living abroad – who currently lose their right to be on the electoral roll, and hence vote, after 15 years out of the country.
The alarm is centred not on voting rights, but on the ability to donate to political parties and campaigns that comes with it. Not everyone’s rights – but really only a tiny number of people, the seriously rich, many of whom live in tax exile.
As The Times reported: “Opponents argue that opening up voting and donation rights would allow wealthy Britons to wield significant influence on political life even after they have been out of the country for many years.”
There are powerful arguments for extending the franchise in this way for the some 5 million British emigrants worldwide – only a tiny fraction of which to whom the concern about political donations is relevant.
The Bill’s impetus came from the exclusion of hundreds of thousands of Britons from voting in the 2016 Brexit referendum – despite the fact that its outcome would have potentially life-changing impacts on their lives. (And has already caused them massive stress, worry and fear.)
The real issue
But there is a broader argument which acknowledges the complex reality of modern lives. Employment opportunities, relationships, wanderlust and chance, can lead people to live for long periods away from their country of citizenship, yet they are still highly likely to retain that Britishness as part of their identity, and have a serious interest in their nation’s future. They may well return in the future, or at least think about it. (Those who don’t are unlikely to keep up their registration.)
Britons living abroad have a stake – they should have a say. As should people of other nationalities living here – but that’s an argument for another day. The French have overseas constituencies reflecting this fact for their citizens – a practical, sensible arrangement that links people who form natural interest groups.
Why should a handful of rich donors prevent that?
The price of power
Let’s look at this from the other side: why should a few of people be able to donate huge sums of money to our politics, to buy our politics, even if they are officially resident in the UK?
Currently, a significant proportion of the electoral activities of the largest political parties, and our important political events like the referendum, are funded by individuals and companies.
We get the politics they pay for. So rather than focusing on their residence, we should be focusing on the money – and ensuring that we expel the influence of wealth from our politics
We believe in “one person, one vote” – yet we allow unrestricted donations that will influence the votes of millions.
The real issue
Rather than arguing to disenfranchise millions to stop the few, let’s empower the millions and ensure our politics is not for sale.
We’ve seen some progress in a related issue this week, in the decision by the Tate galleries not to accept further Sackville money, in view of its links to America’s opioid crisis. There’s a lot of pressure, and some action, on dirty fossil fuel money.
This is a welcome break in a long tradition of washing dubiously acquired money and fame with thin coats of cultural respectability, while allowing the rich to have influence on what culture is funded and supported (oddly enough, very rarely politically radical or challenging art).
We should simply accept the galleries or exhibition they decide to pay for, as with our politics.
Let’s talk about money
Instead we should ensure that individuals are not able to stack up inordinate amounts of money, gained licitly, illicitly or semi-licitly.
That means, in large part, making sure that company owners and shareholders pay their fair share of taxes, and pay their workers fairly an adequately (to be taxed in turn).
That would mean the state has the funds to pay for the politics (according to democratic choice) and culture that it chooses, not that the rich chose.
We have to talk about political funding, with tight restrictions on individual donations.
With that ongoing Brexit chaos, there’s increasing appetite in the UK to question the whole basis of our politics and society, to rebuild this profoundly broken system from the base up.
Natalie Bennett is former leader of the Green party and a Contributing Editor to Left Foot Forward.
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