So here we go again. The Westminster Accounts is the latest scandal showing how vulnerable UK politics is to those seeking undue influence with their cheque books and how money flows to politicians in ways that the public cannot hope to understand. This can’t be right and it’s crucial that these revelations lead to real reform of UK electoral finance rules, how checks on donations are carried out and how money buys access to and distorts public decision-making in the UK.
Without reform, there are serious risks that yet another Westminster scandal will entrench the ‘plague on both your houses’ view of many voters. Disenchantment with politicians in the UK is real and poses genuine threats to our democracy. If recent global events have taught us anything, it is that our democracy is much more fragile than we had all thought.
The UK is lagging other OECD countries when it comes to trust in politicians, with 60% distrusting political parties (compared to an average of 55% in the OECD), and 62% distrusting politicians not to give out political favours in exchange for the offer of a well-paid job (compared to an average of 48% for the OECD).
This is a devastating indictment of the health of our democracy. Cynicism about politicians risks fuelling political extremism, conspiracy theories and total disengagement in the political process. And there is no greater fuel for political cynicism than the suspicion that our politicians are on sale to the highest bidder.
So what needs to happen now?
1. Genuine electoral finance reform
Over a decade ago, the UK’s top ethics advisory body, the Committee on Standards in Public Life made an impassioned plea to the political parties to get big money out of politics – by capping donations at £10,000 (currently there is no cap at all). This would require some public spending, which it calculated would be £23 million (or 50p per elector).
CSPL met a blank from both major political parties and successive governments. The government’s stock answer to every scandal around donations over the past few years is that the public has no appetite for funding elections. This is disingenuous because the public (largely unbeknownst to them) already spends £12.4 million a year on funding political parties. Increasing this by £23 million a year would be a small price to pay for guaranteeing the health of our democracy. For comparison, the government spent £130 million on communications consultants in 2020.
This needs buy-in from both parties, including Labour, who would have to forgo big cash from the Unions. Electoral finance reform is one of the serious omissions from Gordon Brown’s recent Commission on renewing UK democracy report, which the party is now consulting on. Removing big money from politics from whatever source is central to defending UK democracy and all parties should be looking to develop a consensus on how to do this.
2. Doing real checks on where donations come from
The Westminster Accounts has highlighted exceptionally well how it isn’t always clear where money flowing to MPs is coming from. We agree with Lord Pickles that where companies donate, there should be a named individual behind the donation.
But we need much stronger checks than this too. In 2021, CSPL tried again to tackle the regulation of election finance which it said was “badly in need of attention,” by making a series of recommendations for proper checks on donations (including the true identity of donors), and increasing public information about spending at elections. These recommendations have, like the ones a decade earlier, fallen on deaf ears.
As we highlighted last week, proper checks on donations are crucial for protecting UK democracy from foreign influence and crooks. There are strong arguments for making political parties rather than individual MPs much more responsible for doing these checks (not least so that they are done consistently), and more accountable to the Electoral Commission for doing so. It’s crazy that most businesses and charities have to do checks on the source of money they handle by law but political parties have no such rules.
3.Tackling undue influence in politics from the top down
Where those with money can get privileged access to decision-makers, it distorts democratic decision-making.
From funding staff in MPs offices, to foreign governments paying for luxury jollies abroad for MPs (sometimes with their wives) whether through APPGs or the even less regulated ‘Friends of’ groups, the routes for private interests to buy political access are many.
There is no doubt that there are a series of steps that would help tackle this in Parliament – a ban on foreign governments paying for MPs’ trips abroad, strong enforcement of new rules to stop MPs from doing paid lobbying for private interests, stopping commercial interests paying for staff in MPs offices, and having greater regulation of All Party Parliamentary Groups should all be on the table.
But as Lord Anderson eloquently put it on Sky News, the accountability gap highlighted by bodies such as CSPL is actually far worse at ministerial level, where there is less oversight of ministerial interests and little accountability to independent oversight bodies, and where the impact of undue influence on democratic decision-making is likely to be more damaging.
Parliament’s Committee on Standards’ efforts to bring ministerial declarations in line with MPs were rejected by the government before Christmas. Meanwhile, CSPL’s recommendations from late 2021 for beefing up how ethical standards are regulated for politicians (including making oversight of ministerial interests genuinely independent, tackling the revolving door, preventing politicisation of public appointments, and far greater transparency in lobbying) have all been gathering dust.
If we’re going to talk about tackling big money in politics, let’s tackle it all. From Ministers to MPs, donations to lobbying, let’s make sure that the public’s expectation that politicians will work for them in the public interest and not serve either their own or private interests can be genuinely fulfilled.