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There has never been more money in British politics. Since the start of last year, Labour has raised more than £25 million. The Conservatives have taken in almost £40 million. Now, the parties can spend more than ever before.
On Monday, the Government rushed through massive increases in spending and donations thresholds – without holding a single parliamentary vote and with, seemingly, no media coverage (the eagle-eyed Seth Thevoz excepted).
But these new rules matter.
They mean that parties can spend more during election campaigns. They also mean more donors will be hidden from the public.
From now on, parties can accept donations of £11,180 – up from £7,500 – without publishing the donor’s name. That may not sound like a dramatic difference, but it’s actually a lot of money for British politics.
Just £12,000 bought Richard Desmond a seat next to then Housing Minister Robert Jenrick at a Conservative fundraising dinner in 2020, where the property developer was able to successfully lobby for a planning decision to be overturned, saving himself an estimated £50 million.
The new rules mean a family with two kids could donate almost £50,000 anonymously.
The Government’s own legislation admits that “a full impact assessment has not been produced for this instrument as no, or no significant, impact on the private, voluntary or public sector is foreseen”.
This is a truly extraordinary statement: legislation that will significantly increase the amount of ‘dark money’ in British politics is not judged to have any impact on, well, anything.
In the House of Commons, Conservative MP Jacob Young, a junior minister at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – which is now in charge of British election laws – explained the changes as merely a reflection of “historic inflation” in the 20 years since the limits were initially set.
This is both true and deeply disingenuous. Why? Because, while inflation has risen sharply over two decades, the Committee on Standards in Public Life had previously called for the limits to be lowered.
And, even more importantly, political spending and donations thresholds have been increased by the very same Government that is completely failing to enforce British political finance laws and which has refused to close the many loopholes that allow dark money to pollute the political system.
Last year, it introduced the Elections Act, of which probably the most eye-catching measure was the introduction of mandatory voter ID.
More than £4.5 million was spent advertising voter ID online and off, according to a Freedom of Information request I submitted this summer. Nevertheless, an Electoral Commission study found that hundreds of thousands of voters could be excluded at the next general election – with the voter ID law disproportionately affecting poorer people, minorities, and those with disabilities.
How did the Department for Levelling Up respond? It said the roll-out of voter ID was “very encouraging”.
Voter ID is the start, but not the end, of the Elections Act’s calumnies. The legislation also gave ministers powers to set the strategy for, and guide the work of, the elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission. Forget the ‘cradle of parliamentary democracy’ talk – Britain, in effect, no longer has an independent elections regulator.
It is hard not to see the move as a victor’s punishment for the Commission’s decision to investigate the Vote Leave campaign’s breaches of electoral law during the 2016 EU Referendum. It is equally hard to conceive of a similar investigation happening again.
The Elections Act also removed the Commission’s power to initiate criminal proceedings. The watchdog had not used this power but – as Spotlight on Corruption has pointed out – its removal is likely to weaken its investigative and compliance activities.
The UK is heading into the next general election with no law enforcement body at a national level overseeing the political system. The National Crime Agency has no election finance expertise and has made it clear it is not interested in developing any. (Perhaps burned by its failed investigation into Brexit donor Arron Banks).
As the Electoral Commission has noted, UK elections law “is silent on whether or not money obtained from crime would make a political contribution unlawful”.
It’s a good job there is no evidence of political donations being linked to the proceeds of criminal acts then.
But there’s more. The Elections Act introduced measures that will allow up to 3.5 million British nationals living overseas to be added to the electoral register. This is not a bad thing in itself, but the effect is added burdens on the electoral system at the same time as a weakening of its checks and balances.
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Foreign donors can still give money through UK-registered companies – even if the firm hasn’t made any profits.
The Government has also refused to do anything about shadowy unincorporated associations giving anonymous money to politics – despite repeated warnings, including from figures such as the former MI5 director Lord Evans.
Indeed, while most of the new donations and spending limits passed this week come into force in the new year, for unincorporated associations the legislation is explicitly backdated to October 1 2023. A cynic might wonder if there is any connection between this and the huge sums that the Conservatives receive in donations through these secrecy vehicles.
Would Labour reverse this if in power? There is little sign that this could be the case. Warm words about trust seem unlikely to be met with action.
Last month, I attended a fringe event about ethics and integrity at the Labour Conference – Neither of the two Labour representatives on the panel would commit to any substantive changes to tighten electoral laws or take dark money out of politics.
It is already clear that the next election is going to be the most expensive in British history. Labour’s private funding operation has massively ramped up. The Conservatives are taking in record sums, despite double-digit polling deficits. The legislation introduced this week means that parties can spend approximately a third more money during the next general election.
“We probably shouldn’t be surprised that this Government is increasing the amount of money they can bring in anonymously,” Labour MP Clive Lewis said. “This is a Government that has been far too cosy with, and facilitated a lot of the issues we have, with dark money in politics. Why? Because it’s benefited them.”
All this additional money will be spent in a political system with no checks and balances. This should worry everyone who cares about democracy.
Peter Geoghegan is the author of the bestselling ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’