Unless you're a Conservative Party insider or a City trader, I'll bet you've never heard of David Rowland. Number 66 on the Sunday Times rich list, the son of a scrap metal dealer who left his comprehensive school without a single 'O' level, Rowland is currently the Conservative Party's largest donor. The following graphic from The Economist is illuminating;
As the combined membership of the three main parties has now fallen below 1% of the electorate and the three have now become centralised 'brands' rather than mass-membership political movements so each is increasingly dependent on a small number of large donations. The consequences of this are interesting.
Smaller parties or brand-new parties now don't need a substantial national membership to compete - just a few wealthy donors and enough local activists to fill a small shop. Thus one of the most substantial 'barriers to entry' into UK politics is being rapidly eroded. This isn't a bad thing. Secondly, an ideology is no longer necessary for a political party, just an appealing brand identity. The influencing skills of large marketing firms have overtaken the zeal of ideological followers in importance. Once you've found the brand icon, the coke bottle, that connects with the public consciousness you're more than half way there. This is a bad thing.
Whilst few would lie in front of a train to defend the survival of the three main parties, this evolution also poses obvious dangers for our democracy. £5m a year to buy Britain's government is peanuts to a foreign power, even a small one. And there's no such thing as an unencumbered donation, as Brown found to his cost this week, unable at the despatch box to condemn the BA strikers.
Cameron of course is willing to forego the large donations, and a £50k cap on individual gifts is a smart move for his party. Labour's continued blocking of this move for wholly selfish party interests also places the health of our democracy at risk. If Cameron wins this election, along with equalising the electoral quotient and combing-out the corrupt electoral registers, legislating to limit individual political donations would be the mark of a government truly committed to the reform of our corrupt and unhealthy political system.