The UK political donation system resembles a drawer full of tangled wires. How do we untangle it without going insane?
The animals in the zoo we call Parliament are absolutely rolling in it. It’s common knowledge. An MP’s average yearly salary is over £84,000 as of 2022, roughly £50,000 more than the UK average. Okay, okay, MPs have a very important role and are responsible for many people, so that pay check could be justified (to a point) – but where things get absurd is the realm of political party funding and donations.
Political parties’ income comes mostly from external funding, such as donations, and barely at all from taxes or other public funding. MPs must fund their individual campaigns by donations, second jobs, or other honest work such as Matt Hancock shoving camel testicles down his throat.
60% of party donations in 2019 came from private individuals, a trend up 10% from the 2010s, before the election. This uptick arguably emphasises the system’s desire to keep power in the hands of few, rather than sharing it with the many. The House of Lords has a large part to play in these contributions, with an eye-watering £50 million donated by just 27 Conservative peers.
MPs and political parties are legally required to publicly declare all incoming payments. But, this optimistic transparency fails at the first hurdle. Years of unorganised declarations scattered across the internet makes it an unnecessarily arduous task to find out, for example, who paid for 63 MPs to go to Qatar over a decade.
However, a huge step towards clarity happened at the start of 2023, when a dedicated team of journalists from Sky News and Tortoise Media took on the unenviable task of collating the government’s financial dealings. They presented this in the form of the Westminster Accounts, a comprehensive database detailing all of the money that MP’s and political parties have received since the current government formed in 2019.
Katie Riley, a data analyst at Tortoise, was one of two journalists who tackled the mother of all tangled headphones. With a touch of lingering exhaustion in her voice, she says, “Anyone who works in news and political news in the UK knows about and has tried to look at these registers over the years, and has realised how impossible it is made to piece things together.
“It’s a good example of how not adequately managing information ecosystems to keep with the times is just as bad as actively trying to shield information from people. They think that by just putting the information out there they are fulfilling their transparency requirements, but a lot of it is unusable.”
During her many hours sifting through the data, it became apparent to Katie that what she and her team were doing was almost entirely novel, and that there was much still to be done to unearth years of hazy transactions.
“There are a lot of things that could be done to make the system better, very few of which I think will actually happen,” she says. “Having a register of donors would make it much easier to track, and having the donors themselves be a part of that too.
“To an extent, I don’t fault the members for reporting stuff in a way that is confusing, because rules are confusing. On the other hand, it can look like a lot of them are using their positions to get free stuff like trips and holidays.”
“There’s no real incentive for any of the elected members of parliament to make any of this stuff better.”
One of the Tory party’s heftiest financial backers is the infamous Carlton Club in London, which has donated a whopping £1.34m smackeroonies since the turn of the millennium. In January, a cool £15k of that wad was slipped into the account of a certain ‘30p’ Lee Anderson MP, known for his reality-bending claim that you can chef up a decent meal for just thirty pence.
Anderson has said the cash is being used to hire a new member of staff, but whether that refers to a new sparring partner ahead of his hysterical boxing bout with anti-Brexit protester Steve Bray (yes, really), remains to be seen.
The Carlton Club has previously been called the ‘spiritual home of the Conservative Party’, a title which conjures up mental images of a pissed up Hancock belting out Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’ in Downing Street, with an ‘essential’ glass of wine in one hand, and the other… Well, we know where the other hand is.
Given the club is where Chris Pincher allegedly assaulted two fellow guests last year, and has only allowed women to have memberships since 2008, it doesn’t speak well of the Tories’ choice of hang-out spot and source of financial muscle.
But the club’s dealings don’t stop at supporting food-bank-berating wannabe-boxers. A company controlled by a wealthy donor and supporter of the far-right in Germany donated £50,000 to the Club in January. Since then, The Club has in turn given £1.3m to the Conservative Party.
Whilst this loophole is an especially shady example of political donations, it epitomises the lack of clarity involved with party finances and only creates damaging speculation and a knock to the credibility of UK politics that it could really do without. Not helping that an employee of Unite the Union, Labour’s biggest donor, is being investigated for fraud.
There is, believe it or not, plenty of good, honest, substantial donations which go towards important research and fundamental social support. But that money’s legitimacy is somewhat lost in the smog of opaque transactions between the super rich.
Whilst we try to laugh through the pain at this never-ending soap opera, some trust and validity would be more than welcome in Westminster. The last significant reform of the donation legislation was in 2000, since which there have been seven prime ministers, three Downing street cats, and around two billion more people in the world.
Dr Kate Alexander-Shaw is a Research Officer at the London School of Economics, specialising in British political economy. She explains why an overhaul of the doddery old system is needed.
“There is a structural imbalance in whose ideas and interests dominate. Our system is invested in the idea that as long as we are transparent, then things remain honest. We are testing that to destruction,” she says.
“Election campaigns are important, and how money is set up during that period is important. But the way in which we currently regulate money and politics is based around elections, and election campaigns have changed so much in the internet age. The system is only just catching up.”
With a crucial election inbound in the near future, considerable donations will inevitably be wafted under the desperate noses of both Sunak and Starmer. Not allowing their values to be undermined by money is something Dr Alexander-Shaw believes to be critical in maintaining the country’s democracy.
“There is always a relationship between money and politics, but influence is what matters,” she says. “Very few people in UK politics really influence the policy making machine. We should know who is building relationships with the PM and governing party.
“It’s not that any money-politics relation is corrupt, it’s about who benefits from it, where it comes from, and what the connections imply.”
An understandable question would be, why would anyone want to give millions of pounds to the Tory party? Well, as it turns out, there are quite a few benefits. Money might not buy love or happiness, but it could bag you a meeting with the king. Donors are known to be disproportionate receivers of honours, although almost anyone can get on the honours list these days, including another jungle idiot ‘Sir’ Stanley Johnson, and Raffaele Claudio Carbosiero MBE – otherwise known as David Cameron’s barber.
Donors are also regular inductees into the House of Lords, meaning that technically their payments and relationships with politicians do give them a role in the legislative process.
Additionally, no matter how dead behind the eyes, dastardly or dull they may be, an association with politics’ big hitters does bring increased publicity, which is a crucial asset to some. Providing a hefty donation can get these donors an invaluable seat at the table where the fortunes of their industries will be decided. Politicians will say that said table is used for nothing more than expensive brunches and supportive chit chat.
The reality is, there is no way to find evidence that these are anything but nice little brunches. We simply have to trust them for now, a tall order after years of listening to human burp Boris Johnson saying… well, anything really.
It presents some key questions – could there be less of a reliance on millionaire donors and if politicians seemed more widely endorsable? Would a cap on donations level the playing field and allow for a fairer assortment of contributors?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like we’ll be getting answers any time soon. Sunak seems to take transparency a bit too literally, becoming completely invisible on the topic and showing no intention to bring about the essential changes required to ensure a corrupt future does not lie ahead.
What is certain is that the population should make use of emerging tools such as the Westminster Accounts, and work as a collective to not let murky money dominate UK politics any longer.