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Mon 6 December 2021

A joint investigation by the Byline Intelligence Team and The Citizens reveals the lack of gender and ethnic diversity of elite Conservative donors – raising questions about how it is now the party of hedge funds and oligarchs rather than business and commerce

The average top-tier donor to the Conservatives – who has given more than half a million pounds to the party – is a white, male Londoner, aged 65, who works in finance or insurance, exclusive analysis by the Byline Intelligence Team and The Citizens reveals.

At least 286 people have donated more than £100,000 to the Conservative Party since 2011 – with a total of £153,777,237 being given by these ‘elites’, the investigation found.

The average amount donated was £535,809.

The analysis involved compiling the list of individuals who had donated a minimum single payment of £100,000 or more to Conservative Party HQ between 2010 and 2020, using publicly-available information obtained from the elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission

The analysis comes as the Government announces plans for a new law in its Elections Bill that would allow donors registered in tax havens to fund domestic political parties indefinitely. Currently, ‘non-dom donors’ are not permitted to fund political parties if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years.


Old, White Male Londoners Called Michael?

The most notable trend to emerge from the investigation was the gender imbalance of big Conservative donors – with the overwhelming majority being rich men. 

Only 36 (12.5%) of Conservative ‘elite’ donors were women. No woman was found in the top 10 of those who donated money. 

Overall, there were more men called John, David or Peter (40) than the total number of women on the ‘elite’ donor list. 

Many women who do appear to have donated money seem to have acted as conduits for their husbands’ wealth. Two women appearing in the top 20 donors fit this example. Lubov Chernukin, the British-Russian banker and wife of Russia’s former Finance Minister; and Ann Said, whose husband is Saudi billionaire arms fixer Wafic Said. Said helped broker the controversial Al-Yamamah weapons deal under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The average elite donor was also older – 65 years old, compared to the national average age of 40.

Some younger men made the list, including 34-year-old James Reuben. He is the son of billionaire David Reuben, a former committee chairman for Boris Johnson’s 2012 London Mayoral campaign. Reuben has donated more than £600,000 to the Conservative Party.

The elite donors are also largely white. Of those whose ethnicity could be identified, the investigation found that 86% were either white-British or from another white background. 

When information was available on the main sectors in which elite donors worked, 48% of individuals had jobs in banking, insurance, or other financial services. Ten percent of donors worked in retail or consumer goods, while 8% were in construction or housing. 

The investigation also found that the first name ‘Michael’ was shared by 22 (8%) of all of the top individual donors. There is even a Michael Tory who has donated £347,806 to the Conservatives since 2010 and is the co-founder of the independent financial advisory firm Ondra LLP. Previously, Tory was head of UK investment banking for Lehman Brothers Inc.

Other Michaels include the biggest donor to the Conservative Party: Michael Farmer. Lord Farmer, who made his fortune trading metal and other commodities before forming the Red Kite Group of hedge funds, has given at least £6.5 million to the Conservatives. In his donations, he used a range of slightly-altered names such as ‘Michael Farmer’, ‘Lord Michael S Farmer’, and ‘Mr Michael S Farmer’. He was made a life peer in 2014.

Lord Farmer may have donated more, but it is impossible to say from the Electoral Commission’s data. This is because there are a number of instances whereby someone called ‘Michael Farmer’ made multiple donations but did not include their titles or middle initials when donating, meaning that such funds cannot be guaranteed to have come from Lord Farmer. This makes it difficult to calculate accurately the total amount one person has given to the Conservative Party over a 10-year period.

Overall, proving the background of 27 of the 286 major donors to the Conservative Party could not be done. This was typically the result of their having generic names – such as John Cook or David Thompson – and appearing on the Electoral Commission records without any further qualifying information. 

Finally, the overwhelming majority of elite donors, where known, came from London. Of 125 donors who could be ‘geo-tagged’, 90 were London-based, with 10% coming from the Home Counties and 16% from the rest of the UK.


Undue Influence?

Such trends raise questions about the impact and influence these large donors may have over Government institutions, as well as the strong links between the Government and big business. 

During the 2019 General Election, Britain’s political parties received a total of £30.7 million in registered donations. Just under two-thirds (63%) of this was donated to the Conservative Party. Individual donors gave £13.3 million to the Conservative Party, compared to £159,000 going to Labour. 

The Conservatives also received £6 million from corporations, while Labour was given £5 million from trade unions. Overall, Labour got 17.6% of the total donation pot in that election.

There have been growing calls from Labour for the Government to be more transparent regarding the so-called ‘advisory board’ of wealthy Conservative donors who regularly receive access to the Prime Minister and Chancellor. Very little is known about this board. It was reportedly created by Ben Elliot, Conservative Party chair and creator of the millionaire’s concierge service Quintessentially; and was designed for “some of the party’s most generous donors” to have access to leading political figures – suggesting that some of the 286 individuals analysed in this investigation may be connected to the board, or have taken part in its events. 

Beyond the advisory board, there have been numerous allegations of cronyism whereby wealthy business people – including Conservative Party donors and those with Government contacts – have benefited from lucrative contracts. 

Investigations by the Byline Intelligence Team and The Citizens have exposed the prevalence of Conservative Party donors among Government Coronavirus testing providers and Ministry of Justice (MoJ) contracts

Stephen Catlin, who donated more than £400,000 to the Conservatives, is a board member of Qured – a Government-approved travel testing company charging £150 for two-and-eight-day tests. David Cameron’s position as an ‘advisor’ to Greensill Capital raised eyebrows when the former Prime Minister was accused of using his closeness to key Government ministers to benefit the now collapsed firm.

Meanwhile, former Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps has said that donors have no influence on Government policy. 

However, when large sums of cash can buy ‘closeness’ to the apparatus of Government, it can have highly beneficial consequences for the financial success of big donors and the firms that they run. This is especially true if they receive political and economic ‘updates’, as has been suggested.  

The overwhelming dominance of white men from the financial sector in the list of top elite donors to the Conservative Party also highlights the entrenched dominance of a small elite who, in modern Britain, threaten pluralistic, inclusive policy-making through the appropriate democratic channels. 

The Byline Intelligence Team and The Citizens gathered information on the sex, age, ethnicity, and economic sector of the 286 donors to analyse patterns and trends amongst the biggest individual backers. People who donated through corporations or companies were not included. The analysis focused on large, single donations – meaning that donors who may have cumulatively given more than £100,000 in smaller, single amounts, were excluded.  

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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