It has long been known that existing electoral law does not do enough to safeguard UK political parties from foreign influence and dirty money. The 2020 Russia report by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) noted that Russian elites with close links to Vladimir Putin had been major donors to UK political parties. In light of the events of 2022, this now looks like astonishing negligence.
With a General Election on the horizon, parties will be filling their war chests in the coming months. But until they have policies in place to conduct proper checks on the source of donations – including from foreign sources, dirty money and other tainted or reputationally compromised funds – the integrity of the UK’s democratic process will continue to be seriously at risk.
The risks posed by foreign influence through donations are not theoretical and arguably significantly increased as a result of the government’s recent electoral reforms. The Election Act of 2022 introduced new measures that will allow a large number – possibly up to 3.5 million – of new overseas voters (and therefore potential donors) to be added to the electoral register ahead of the next election.
In what may have been the last opportunity to tackle the issue this side of an election through legislation, the government rejected an amendment to the National Security Bill in the Lords just before Christmas.
The amendment (44) would have required UK political parties to have a policy to identify donations from foreign governments whether made directly or through an agent. A separate amendment (45a), also rejected, would have required parties taking donations from non-resident British citizens to satisfy the Electoral Commission that the donation had no links to a foreign power.
Despite having strong cross-party support with backing from Crossbench, Liberal Democrat and Labour Peers, including former head of MI5 Lord Evans of Weardale, and the narrow – and some would think uncontroversial – focus of the amendment, the government stated that the amendment wasn’t necessary. The UK, it claimed, already has a “stringent regime of controls on political donations”.
Ignoring the experts
The government’s view (or perhaps complacency) is not shared by independent experts. In its 2021 report, Regulating Election Finance, the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) noted ways that current controls can be circumvented and “the potential for foreign money to influence UK elections.” It called for the rules to be substantially improved and laid out a series of recommendations.
During the debate, crossbencher Lord Carlile, who tabled the amendment and as a former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation knows a thing or two about threats facing the UK, highlighted “major concerns about foreign financial influence on political parties.” Lord Evans, meanwhile, who chairs the CSPL, noted that it was regrettable that the government has so far ignored CSPL’s recommendations for reform.
“A great deal more to be done”
Political parties’ vulnerability to potential foreign influence is just one part of a bigger problem. By accepting donations from unsavoury, unethical or even criminal sources, political parties undermine their own reputations as well as the UK’s political processes, causing serious damage to the health of our democracy.
Such risks have led to calls from both the CSPL and the Electoral Commission for anti-money laundering style checks on donations, a move which Peers supported in the debate. Liberal Democrat Lord Purvis of Tweed said there was an “overwhelming case” for these kinds of checks, while Lord Evans said he found it “difficult to understand” why anyone would object to them.
That’s why we at Spotlight are calling for parties to adopt a comprehensive ‘Know Your Donor’ compliance policy ahead of the election, to be robustly overseen by a fully empowered and properly resourced Electoral Commission, to protect the integrity of UK democracy.
Not too late
It’s not too late for the government and/or Parliament to tackle the vulnerabilities and loopholes in the UK electoral system that leave our elections open to the influence of dirty money. The government could take the bold step of coming forward with its own amendment for the next stage of the Bill in the Lords (and if Tom Tugendhat wants his Defending Democracy Taskforce to have a real legacy in this area it would be wise to do so).
Otherwise, we hope that Peers will decide it’s time to end the complacency about foreign interference and push the matter to a vote. Opposition parties meanwhile could do well to show that they mean business in this area by adopting donation policies that reflect CSPL’s important recommendations on a voluntary basis. By doing so they would be genuinely taking back control over the integrity of UK electoral finance.