Is crowdfunding the future of politics?

Have the days of union funding and big donors had their day?

by Alan Martin

Something unusual happened on Saturday 7 January. After years of politicians sending out campaign literature to educate their voters on the issues, 363 voters turned the tables, sending all 650 members of the House of Commons and the 322 politicians that make up the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London a copy of Brexit: What the hell happens now? Politicians weren’t suitably informed of the intricacies of disconnecting Britain from Brussels, the backers had decided, and it was up to them to put that right.

This isn’t the first time concerned citizens have turned to crowdfunding to hold their politicians to account. Hell, it’s not even the first time it’s happened over Brexit, with plans to prosecute Vote Leave politicians and force parliament to have the final say on the triggering of Article 50 both sailing past their funding targets.crowdfunding_politics_feature_1

Are these anomalies given more prominence by the divisive once-in-a-generation decision to leave the European Union, or evidence of a broader sea change in British democracy? As is often the case in politics, Britain seems to be following the US in this regard. While many lazily point to 2008 as the point America tentatively turned to internet crowdfunding, the roots go deeper than that, with Howard Dean’s failed 2004 run setting the cogs in motion for candidates to follow. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have since taken the model and ran with it, as they each managed to alienate big donors, in their own way.

“Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have since taken the model and ran with it, as they each managed to alienate big donors, in their own way.”

Whether you think that’s a good thing or not depends on how happy you were with the status quo. “It’s disrupting the old way in which politics was financed, which tended to be big donors with a certain agenda that didn’t necessarily reflect the will of the public at large,” explains Paul Hilder who, along with David Cameron’s former senior advisor Steve Hilton, founded Crowdpac in 2014. It launched in the UK in April 2016, just before the EU referendum, and Hilder describes the kind of crowdfunding his site can deliver as “kryptonite for big donors”.crowdfunding_politics_feature_3

“In the old days you would launch your campaign through a media event and briefings to journalists, and you’d raise your money through big donors,” he explains. “It doesn’t work that way anymore. Now to have a really successful political campaign, you need to go out and find supporters, connect with them, get them to share the campaign and crowdfund. It’s just a lot healthier – it’s bringing it back to the original ideals of democracy, where people would have to talk to their fellow citizens in order to lay claim to represent them.”

“It’s just a lot healthier – it’s bringing it back to the original ideals of democracy, where people would have to talk to their fellow citizens in order to lay claim to represent them.”

In Britain, the idea is beginning to take hold. Both factions of the Labour party are currently raising money on Crowdpac – Momentum is aiming to defend Corbyn and his values, while Labour First is ploughing a somewhat different furrough. Another new site, More United – launched in the wake of MP Jo Cox’s murder during the referendum campaign – aims to support progressive candidates picked by its members, regardless of political party. As long as they meet the group’s three criteria (they must agree with five core values, be in with a realistic shot at winning and endorsed by the membership), they’ll get full access to the warchest. The name comes from Jo Cox’s maiden speech to parliament, where she told MPs, “while we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

With one byelection under their belt, More United has a 100% success record: Zac Goldsmith was successfully ousted by Sarah Olney in Richmond Park, backed by thousands of crowdfunded pounds and volunteer door-knockers. “We weren’t leafleting on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, we were were leafleting on behalf of More United endorsing the Liberal Democrat candidate,” explained More United’s acting CEO Bess Mayhew. “It’s very well documented that third-party endorsements have much more impact than first-person endorsements.”

More United has raised more than £250,000 – enough to make a real difference in any local election where it chooses to stand. “A donation in the range of £10-20,000 will make you the largest donor to a candidate, which will give you an impact,” explains Mayhew. “I’d rather the largest donor be made up of plenty of people than one hedge-fund manager.”moreunited_crowdfunding_richmond_park_byelection

They are still being cautious and picking their battles, though – the recent Sleaford byelection was seen as too much of a foregone conclusion to waste members’ money on. The upcoming byelections in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland are real possibilities, however, presuming a convincing candidate is selected who reflects the values of the group.

“We’re not against parties, they are fundamentally important to our democracy,” Mayhew explains. “But it’s absolutely true to say they’re no longer the mass movements of people. They’re small dwindling groups of political enthusiasts and they do – not deliberately, but they do – alienate large groups of people who would like to influence politics but can’t do so.

“We’ve got 10,000 members already and we think we’ve got a real opportunity to change not only the direction of British politics, but the way it operates and the way people can engage with it, to be a much more modern, digitally focused, outcome-driven type of politics,” Mayhew explains.

The needs of in-between times

Not everyone is convinced, of course. “I don’t want to do this down because it’s a great development, but the idea it’s going to change the game is well off the mark,” says Justin Fisher, professor of political science at Brunel University. He sees crowdfunding as a “slightly rebadged version of small donations”, and most likely to impact big showpieces of political theatre, such as general elections, byelections and referenda.

“The problem is that the biggest financial needs for parties are not usually in election times – they’re in between,” he explains. “And the kind of money you’re after for that tends to be much more than crowdfunding could deliver.”

He doesn’t see the American precedent offering much reassurance, either. “American parties are not like British parties – they don’t exist in between time. Our parties exist all the time, they have to fight elections every single year, and they have to spend money on things like the photocopier – which is unlikely to spark a big crowdfunding campaign.”tory_election_poster_2001

As co-founder of Crowdpac, it’s probably not too surprising that Hilder disagrees with that analysis. “My perspective is that the transformation of politics and democracy to be more open, more contested, more citizen-centric and less captured by an existing political elite is inevitable. It’s happening.

“If you decide we’re going to hang on to the late 90s/early 2000s, Blairite/Clintonite version of politics, which felt very comfortable to a lot of people, then you’re going to lose.”

One aspect of UK politics that may keep those clinging on to the past complacent is first-past-the-post (FPTP) – the brutal winner-takes-all system that ensures parties have controlled safe seats for generations (“you could put a red rosette on a pig and they’d vote for it in Rotherham”). The British public had the chance to ditch FPTP in 2011, and resoundingly voted against the change – thanks in part to a catastrophically bad campaign from the insurgents. Does that clip crowdfunding’s wings before they’ve soared?

“If you decide we’re going to hang on to the late 90s/early 2000s, Blairite/Clintonite version of politics, which felt very comfortable to a lot of people, then you’re going to lose.”

“We’re very much focused on what we can achieve within the existing political system,” explains Mayhew. “If the system changes, then great, we’ll continue to work with whatever system is in place to ensure our voices are heard and people have a chance to influence politics. We’re working with the status quo, while acknowledging that we’d like to change things personally.”

That may sound a touch defeatist for a group seeking public support for big political change, but that pragmatism may prove its biggest asset. And even Fisher doesn’t think that the current system is too big an obstacle. “In some ways FPTP could be an advantage to crowdfunding, because there’s a clear winner, and these kind of movements are likely to get behind a candidate who’s likely to win,” he explains. There are a number of outsider precedents, even in Britain, he points out: Martin Bell taking out Neil Hamilton, for example, and the Health Concern party’s landslide victory over Labour in Wyre Forest 2001.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=2LBvnlpa0zw

Indeed, it’s interesting to speculate what internet crowdfunding could have done to some of the historic elections of the 20th century. “If the technology had been available for a seismic shift election like 1997 or 1979, you might have been just as successful,” Fisher speculates.

The possibility of good populism

There’s an elephant in the room here, of course. In the age of Trump, Brexit and populist politics, is online crowdfunding a tool for fending off populism or embracing it? “It could go either way to be honest, and the experience of how social media has been adopted by the populist movement doesn’t bode well in that respect,” Fisher responds, after a pause. “It’s difficult to say to be honest, and I don’t know the answer to that I’m afraid.”

Hilder is more upbeat: “I think it’s a bit of both, to be honest with you,” he says.

“I believe that it is possible to have a good populism – Franklin Roosevelt, one of the greatest politicians of the 20th century, was undoubtedly a populist. Winston Churchill was undoubtedly a populist. There’s a difference between a cynical negative populism that seeks to manipulate people and polarise them and builds on hatred, and a positive populism that is more about serving the people, taking their concerns seriously and providing leadership.”crowdfunding_politics_feature_2

But even he sees a risk here. Crowdpac hasn’t had to throw out any controversial campaigns yet (“it will definitely happen at some point,” he says), but there’s potential for unintended consequences. “Crowdfunding is a tool. It can be used for good or bad purposes; it all depends on who picks it up and who uses it.

“There are no guarantees. That’s democracy for you.”

“It’s entirely possible for campaigns which are destructive of democracy and of the common good to be crowdfunded. This only makes it more urgent in my view that good people wake up, smell the coffee, get involved and crowdfund for the right kinds of candidates, political parties or movements.

“Crowdpac exists because we want to build a better democracy and we believe in politics and renewing politics for the 21st century, but there are no guarantees. That’s democracy for you.”

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