David Maddox: Political party funding differs hugely on either side of the Atlantic, yet the US could help us innovate

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ALL you need to know about the difference in US and British political culture are two figures – $2 billion, and £31 million.

The first is the amount raised, between them, by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney for the recent US presidential election (another $4bn was spent there on other elections), while the second is the grand total spent by all UK political parties in the 2010 general election.

Yet it is the UK that believes it has a problem with political funding, as witnessed by the outburst this week of the head of Westminster’s anti-sleaze watchdog, Sir Christopher Kelly, who pronounced that big money “poisons British democracy”.

Sir Christopher, chairman of the committee on standards in public life, yesterday made a final appeal for the three main party leaders to agree a solution to political party funding based around a cap on individual donations of £10,000. It is a long way from what happens in America, where a Supreme Court ruling in January 2010 declared that a limit to corporate donations was “unconstitutional”.

Sir Christopher’s comments follow a long line of stories which have at various points hit all the main parties in the UK. We have had cash for honours with Labour, Lord Ashcroft with the Conservatives, the convicted fraudster Michael Brown who gave £2.4m to the Lib Dems, and questions over Stagecoach owner Brian Souter’s donations to the SNP.

The reason nothing has been done is that the three main UK political parties are trying to protect their own interests. David Cameron has said he will agree to the cap but only if it applies to unions. Ed Miliband wants unions excluded from a cap because he says their funds are individual donations made by their members. Meanwhile Nick Clegg, whose Lib Dem party struggles most to get funding, wants state funding considered. Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband both baulk at state funding, particularly because, in a time of austerity and cuts, taxpayer money for political parties is a hard sell.

And yet it is the Americans, whose free-for-all so contrasts with political funding in the UK, who perhaps offer a partial solution on state funding.

A senior employee at one of the US’s largest companies based in the UK told this writer how some of his colleagues in America had been given time off to do “charity work”, which involved working on the Obama campaign. The employees were able to keep their wages but the company was able to offset this against tax as an incentive for allowing time for charity work.

While the concept of helping a political party counting as charity work might be hard to swallow for some, the idea received a warm reception from a cross-party group of Scottish politicians at the US embassy election night party. Essentially it was seen as a public/private solution for encouraging community volunteerism, and, with the direct ideas on political funding going nowhere, some imaginative solutions seem to be required.