Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

The main concept: the necessity of removing large sums of money from UK politics.

The main concept: the necessity of removing large sums of money from UK politics.


If you reside in a constituency with a small majority and were overwhelmed by flyers, posters, and internet advertisements during the previous national election, get ready. Michael Gove raised the maximum amount for campaign expenses significantly last year. A massive amount of promotional material is coming your way.

The ministers debated that the adjustments – which resulted in an 80% increase in the limit for party spending and a 30% increase for candidate spending – were necessary due to inflation since the limits were last established in 2000. However, this change will only further emphasize the importance of large sums of money in UK politics, much of which comes from a small group of extremely wealthy donors. With the upcoming election, it is overdue for us to consider if there is a more transparent method of conducting political funding.

The issue may not be as obvious and widespread as it is in the US, where paid television commercials are allowed and laws aimed at limiting corporations’ ability to fund elections were essentially rendered powerless by the supreme court’s interpretation of freedom of speech. However, financial influence still exists within Westminster.

It runs all the way from the practice of firms showering MPs with free tickets for sporting and music events through to providing backing for all-party parliamentary groups. At its most raw, it sees wealthy individuals writing six- and seven-figure cheques directly to the political party of their choice. All of these donations are declared, of course; but the conversations before and after the cash is handed over are not.

Some of the individuals providing financial support are ultimately granted a position in the House of Lords. A year ago, an analysis conducted by the Guardian revealed that 27 out of 10 Tory peers had donated at least £100,000 to the party. The luxurious robes worn by these peers may help to downplay the controversy surrounding this questionable aspect of the British governmental system. However, a peerage holds significant influence and privileges, such as the ability to question government officials and vote on laws. It is not difficult to imagine the criticism that would arise if another country’s legislature selected members based on their financial contributions, at least partially.

Each contributor must successfully navigate through the House of Lords Appointments Commission (Holac), which reviews nominations. In 2006, Holac’s rejection of multiple Labour nominees sparked the cash-for-honours controversy, where Blair’s administration was accused of offering peerages in exchange for party loans. Although no charges were ultimately filed, the scandal brought attention to the secretive intersection of politics and finances.

However, Boris Johnson’s selection of Peter Cruddas, a prominent figure in the City and a generous donor to the Conservative party with a total contribution of over £3.4m, went against the recommendations of Holac, highlighting the inadequacy of current measures for oversight. In an interview with the Telegraph, Cruddas cited his involvement with the Vote Leave campaign, to which he contributed £1.3m, as the main motivation for his recent peerage.

Important contributors can also have an impact in less obvious but potentially more impactful methods, as they often receive the attention of senior politicians – sometimes even by directly purchasing it, such as the Conservative supporter who allegedly paid £40,000 for a dinner with Jeremy Hunt and three former politicians last year.

This could be a chance for individuals to voice their opinions on a political issue that they are passionate about. Lord Brownlow, a Conservative party contributor who funded Carrie Johnson’s expensive wallpaper, used this opportunity to propose a new Great Exhibition to then culture secretary Oliver Dowden. (Brownlow was later reimbursed by the Johnsons.)

Mohamed Amersi, a contentious former supporter of the Conservative party, proposed that individual donations to political campaigns should be limited to £25,000. He believes that as a major contributor, one may feel entitled to control decisions.

What actions should be taken? Similar to various calls for change in our struggling democratic system, the notion of eliminating the influence of large sums of money in politics is often disregarded as impractical. However, not too long ago, there was agreement among multiple political parties that something needed to be done. In the 2010 coalition agreement, there was a commitment to negotiate a comprehensive plan for restricting donations and overhauling party funding in order to reduce the power of big money in politics. This was also included in Labour’s manifesto, but discussions between parties ultimately fell through.

The general population, disenchanted with the current state of politics, seem to be in favor of stricter regulations. As early as 2016, well before Johnson’s extravagant wallpaper scandal, 76% of UK citizens surveyed by the anti-corruption organization Transparency International expressed a strong belief that wealthy individuals hold too much power over governments and that measures should be implemented to prevent this.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life released a report in 2011 titled “Ending the Big Donor Culture,” which suggests implementing a £10,000 limit on individual donations (equivalent to £14,000 in today’s currency). The report also proposes reducing overall campaign spending limits. While this may cause backlash from political parties, it begs the question of whether every leaflet and highly paid consultant is truly essential for the public to comprehend the election process.

The committee made a controversial recommendation for state funding for parties to be increased based on the votes received in the previous election. This could potentially cost an additional £23m per year, or 50p per voter. It would require a brave politician to argue for more government funds to be allocated to politics during a time when the public is feeling disillusioned. However, Lord Jonathan Evans, the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, contends that a contributing factor to this disillusionment is the belief that wealthy individuals are able to purchase influence.

Ignore the promotional newsletter.

A Labour administration seeking to reform party financing would face the challenge of deciding how to handle union donations. The standards committee proposed that its £10,000 limit should also apply in this case, without any exceptions for the £3-per-person affiliation fee that affiliated unions pay to the party each year.

This seems excessively limiting, considering the significant role unions play in the Labour party’s constitution. Additionally, their contributions are made through a democratic process, as members can choose to opt out of their union’s political fund. In fact, since 2016, new members are required to actively opt in. Essentially, these are numerous individual donations combined into one.

It is more difficult to make a case for large one-time donations to political campaigns, such as the £3m given by Len McCluskey’s Unite to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in November 2019 (although it should be noted that the Conservatives were also receiving significant donations from wealthy individuals who had not been elected, unlike McCluskey). However, the current system is unjustifiable in principle and erodes democracy in practice. In the past, the UK has often implemented constitutional reforms in response to crises. A new government would be wise to not wait for the inevitable eruption of another party funding scandal, which will once again harm public trust.

Further reading

“Kleptopia” written by Tom Burgis and published by William Collins is available for purchase at £10.99.

Profile’s “Moneyland” by Oliver Bullough is priced at £10.

Purchasing the Ballot: An Account of Campaign Funding Change written by Robert E Mutch (published by Oxford for £14.99)

Source: theguardian.com