Money Can Buy You Votes

Henry Tam, 2015 May 13
Polling station voting booths
The influence of wealth on the ballot box

As pundits queue up to expound what went wrong for Labour and why the Conservatives won control, it is important to remember an old adage – follow the money.

A key political issue in any society is whether the benefits generated by people’s joint efforts as workers and citizens should be siphoned off to boost the bank accounts of a few, or shared out more fairly and productively in terms of people’s pay and the support for public services that serve the common good.

Seen clearly in these terms, most people would of course reject politicians who promote the former, and give their backing to those who champion the latter.

Unfortunately, plutocratic politicians have one big, financial advantage. By committing themselves to doing whatever they can to help the wealthy few exploit the masses even more, they get all the assistance that money can buy.

The UK has provided a case example of how this is done with a two-prong approach. First, the superrich, from hedge fund managers to property tycoons, make sure politicians on the right can substantially outspend those on the left. For example, in the final week of the latest election campaign, with many voters still undecided, the Conservative Party received 10 times more in political donations than the Labour Party. And it was no coincidence that the Conservatives in government had by then brushed aside the Electoral Commission’s recommendations and changed the law to allow a 23% increase on what can be spent in election campaigning.

Secondly, corporate moguls have been buying up media outlets for decades. Through those channels they continuously spin out stories about how society’s problems have little to do with laws and policies favouring the superrich, but are all due to vilified scapegoats such as benefit claimants and immigrants (and the EU too for good measure). As for any politicians who dare to stand up to corporate power – the tax evaders, the profiteers, the phone hackers – they are relentlessly presented as foolish, dangerous, incompetent, and untrustworthy.

If anyone doubts that advertising, direct selling/campaigning, media coverage etc can have a critical influence on people’s behaviour, they need to be reminded of how corporations spend billions on their marketing and PR, and the whole new online information and networking industry is sustained by money spent on advertising. And the goal is never to convert everyone, but just to get enough people to go with one product/political party on enough occasions.

So instead of pinning blame on those politicians who have tried to halt the rise of corporate power and challenge plutocratic politics for being ‘out of touch’ with the electorate, the most pressing task for any democratic society is to tackle the problem of money buying up political control.

It is the most insidious form of corruption. And until those in government are prepared to put an end to it, it will only spread further. But how can those who defy the plutocratic mantra get into government in the first place? That requires a new form of progressive populism that engages people on the ground through honest conversations. It can be done – look at the electoral success of the left in Latin America for the past two decades.

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