How Britain’s corrupt political funding helps the Right

With the 2024 general election set to be the dirtiest battle yet, the party which receives the most money from donors could be at a distinct advantage.

Right-Wing Watch

Desperate times call for desperate measures and facing the ‘worst outcome in the party’s history’, as described by Sir John Curtice, the UK’s top polling guru, Rishi Sunak has pulled out what could be the mother of all trump cards – a stealthily passed plan to increase the election spending cap.

Despite public support for the party nosediving, donations to the Tories keep flooding in, made by a small pool of filthy rich supporters. As of September 2023, the ruling party had raised £22m compared to Labour’s £16m. In the last quarter of 2023, the Conservatives raised three times as much in election funding than the opposition.

With large sums of money already flowing into party coffers, it is not surprising that the government wants to increase the spending limits for parties and campaigners at elections.

In November, the government passed a statutory instrument that will increase the national election spending cap from £19.5m to around £35m. The major reform to election policy cannot be challenged by opposition parties. The Electoral Commission sounded the alarm, saying that the ‘sneaking out’ of the plan would give an unfair advantage to the biggest parties.

Warning of the injustices of Britain’s big-donor culture, the Electoral Reform Society said, rather than fixing ‘worrying loopholes,’ in deciding to raise the cap, the government is just ‘increasing the amount that can flood in.’

The same statutory instrument will increase the amount of money that an individual can donate to a party without declaring who donated it, from £7,500 to £11,180. “We are concerned about any move that could see more money flowing anonymously into our politics,” the watchdog continued.

Liberal Democrat Peer and Left Foot Forward contributor, Lord Chris Rennard, voiced similar concerns, with a reminder that no party had ever reached the former spending cap of £30,000 for every constituency they contested. This would equate to £19.5m nationally if they stood a candidate in every seat. He said that only the Tories had come close and accused the government of a ‘desperate’ bid to gain an advantage at the next election.

Writing for Byline Times, Rennard said that increasing the amount political parties can spend on general elections is ‘another warning sign for British democracy.’

“It will now be legally possible for a single billionaire to stump up the entire £36 million, or for six billionaires to pay £6 million each, and cover a party’s total general election spend at the national level,” warned Rennard.

The Tories claim the rise allows for inflation, since the limit was last set in 2000. (It’s a shame such inflation-busting enthusiasm isn’t extended to junior doctors, and other public sector workers, who are forced to work for real-time pay cuts.)

Unlike other advanced democracies, like France and Canada, which have strict political donor limits, in Britain, there is no cap on how much donors can give, meaning rich people can basically attempt to buy elections. Hell, even in the US, there are restrictions on how much you can give to candidates.

Friends in high places

As we know, the Tories have rich mates, extremely rich. In recent years, the Conservative party has become dependent on big money coming from a tiny elite.

As prime minister, David Cameron promised to rebuild trust in politics, and, among other things, limit donations to political parties. Yet rather than practising what he preached, it was revealed that since Cameron became Conservative party leader in 2005, funding for the Tories from the City’s wealthiest had risen fourfold to £11.4m a year.

The party’s reliance on wealthy donors carried on during the Cameron years. In 2013, Electoral Commission figures revealed that ten wealthy Tory supporters who attended private dinners with Cameron had between them provided a £1m boost to party coffers.

In the subsequent years, Britain’s corrupt system that effectively enables money to buy political power without transparency, has escalated.

In the run-up to the 2019 general election, the Tories smashed their own record for the most money raised in a general election, with large, overwhelmingly pro-Brexit donors contributing at least £12m to the party coffers. £1m came from Peter Hargreaves, despite the billionaire having labelled Boris Johnson a ‘buffoon.’ Hargreaves, a staunch Brexiteer, had previously donated £3.2m to the Leave.EU campaign, founded by Arron Banks.

By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour received just £4m during the first three weeks of the election campaign, most of which came from the unions.

Data from the Election Commission showed that the Conservatives spent more than £16m on its election campaign to claim its biggest majority since Thatcher’s victory in 1987, with each winning seat costing £200,000. Labour, meanwhile, spent £12m.

Analysis in September 2023 showed that since Rishi Sunak became prime minister, an astonishing four-fifths of all individual donations made to the Tories came from just ten super rich people. This handful of backers had given a combined sum of £10.6m, accounting for 83 percent of the £12.7m received from individuals since Sunak had been in Downing Street. That figure is however lower than under Boris Johnson, Theresa May, and David Cameron, and suggests that the party has become more reliant on a small group of elite supporters.

In May 2023, the party received its largest single donation in more than two decades. Egyptian-born billionaire, Mohamed Mansour is the biggest single backer of the Sunak era. The retail magnate said he donated £5m because Sunak “understands how growth is generated.” Mansour, who served under Egyptian autocrat Honsi Mubarak, was appointed as senior treasurer of the Conservative party at a reception dinner for donors in December 2022, a job that will reportedly involve fundraising in the run-up to the next general election.

The appointment was criticised by Labour. “Just when you think the Conservatives have plumbed the depths of sleaze and scandal we have this: a billionaire who was a part of Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime being put in charge of drumming up donations, to plug the gap left by those deserting this chaotic and stagnant government,” said Anneliese Dodds, chair of the Labour party.

Mansour’s company Unatrac has ties to Russia. In May, the company announced it was suspending its business activities in Russia after it was reported that the firm was supplying machinery to the Russian oil and gas industry. Labour has urged the Conservatives to hand back the £5m donation from Mubarak. Dodds called on the party to justify donations of almost £7.5m that she said had come from people and firms who had had links to business in Russia.

Another major backer in the Sunak era is Lubov Chernukhin , wife of the former Russian oligarch Vladimir Chernukhin, who gave £136,000. Her lawyer has insisted that her donations “have never been tainted by Kremlin or any other influence.”

But it’s not just the Tories who are lucratively lapping up funds from super wealthy individuals wanting to play politics with their millions. In 2016, £8.4m – the biggest political donation in UK history at the time – was given to the Brexit Party. It came from Arron Banks, the insurance tycoon who also has links to Russia and Vladimir Putin.  Banks reportedly went on to lavishly fund Nigel Farage in the year after the referendum. Just last week, the billionaire Brexiteer claimed he could find £10 million for Reform UK, if Farage jumped back into the fray.

Labour meanwhile is busy building its own election war chest. The party has struggled for money in recent years, with membership – and the revenue it provides – having dropped significantly since 2020. Additionally, since 2018, trade union contributions have fallen by more than a million. Such shortfalls however have been made up by large donations from wealthy sources.  In the second quarter of 2023, the party raised a record £10.4m. £3m came from supermarket baron, David Sainsbury.

Sainsbury family donor wars

The story involving the Sainsbury family’s political donations is interesting, if not slightly amusing. The largest private donors to both the Tories and Labour at the end of 2023 were made by Lord Sainsbury, but not the same Lord Sainsbury. John Sainsbury, who was knighted in 1980 and made a life peer in 1989, passed away in 2022, and left a record £10m to the Conservatives in his will, the largest single sum ever given to the party. His cousin, Lord David Sainsbury, is a Labour backer, at least he is under Sir Keir Starmer. The former Sainsbury company chair also gave generously to Labour during the Blair years. An ardent Remainer, he also donated funds to Labour and the Liberal Democrats during the EU referendum, and gave £4m to the anti-Brexit group, Britain Stronger in Europe. Sainsbury, who was made a Labour peer in 1997, withdrew his support for the party during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. In the 2019 election, he gave £8m to the Liberal Democrats. Sainsbury also formerly funded the Progress group, which is associated with the Labour right. He also gave a small donation to a Tory MP in 2018.

Another Labour megadonor is Gary Lubner, who donated £2.2m to the party last year. Lubner has made his millions by running the company behind Autoglass. The South-African born businessman said that he hoped his support will keep Labour in power “for a long time.”

In 2022, during Liz Truss’s disastrous reign, multimillionaire Gareth Quarry, a top Tory party donor, announced his defection from the Tories to Labour, with a £100,000 donation to Starmer’s party.

It has been argued that the resurgence in support for Labour among the business community, is pushing Starmer’s party to ditch its progressive policies. Adam Ramsay, openDemocracy’s special correspondent, notes how some members of the shadow cabinet have just one advisor, funded by the Labour Party, while others have whole teams, paid for by major donors.

“It’s generally those associated with the right of the Labour Party who seem able to attract the funding of the handful of hedge funders and millionaires who chip in to such things. As a result, they get the researchers and spinners who make them look more competent, allowing them to deliver more, to grow their profiles, to succeed,” Ramsay argues.

Void of the political donation restrictions in other developed democracies, the UK political party system is prone to a corrupt practice by those seeking to buy or sell influence in return for contributions to party coffers.

The scandal of how politics is funded in Britain seems to be something of an ‘elephant in the room’ issue that no one really wants to talk about. It is a subject that remains relatively ignored in the mainstream media. As the anti-corruption group Transparency International UK  warns, while it is not always easy to connect policy outcomes directly to donations by individuals, the ‘very possibility of such a link is in itself corrosive to a healthy democracy.’

With the 2024 general election set to be the dirtiest battle yet, the party which receives the most money from donors could be at a distinct advantage. And in effectively buying political access, these megadonors are likely to have favourable consideration in policy development and legislation, as they don’t give away their money for nothing. Worrying times indeed. And if that was not enough to worry about, the whole business speaks of the decline of democracy as defined by mass membership of political parties. A generation ago the Conservative Party had a membership of 250,000 and becoming ‘a young Con’ was part of the rite of passage for thousands of middle-class young people, not necessarily for political reasons it has to be said. Now it consists of an elderly rump, something not entirely disconnected from its run of appalling leaders in recent years.  

Right-Wing Media Watch – Fleet Street’s Post Office scandal failings confirms why alternative media is vital

It took an ITV drama to expose the true magnitude of what is now widely regarded as the UK’s greatest miscarriage of justice.

But rather than the mainstream media, the so-called ‘Fleet Street’ publications with their power, contacts, influence, and money doing the groundwork for the captivating four-part drama, it was Computer Weekly, a niche digital trade magazine for IT professionals.

Since breaking the story in 2009 about Horizon, the faulty Fujitsu accounting software responsible for the ‘missing’ money, the niche publication has printed around 350 stories about Horizon, 70 of which were published before the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance brought legal action against the Post Office in 2018. By this time, the story was public knowledge, yet it still remained relatively muted in the mainstream media.

In 2022, Rebecca Thomson, the journalist who first investigated and broke the story, told the Times that Computer Weekly had expected major follow-ups, none of which came. “It really did go out to a clanging silence. I was super-ambitious, and I was disappointed, and a bit confused about the fact that there had been so little reaction to the story, because I still continue to feel like it was incredibly strong,” she said.

Freelance journalist Nick Wallis had recognised the magnitude of the story and, with a crowdfunding campaign, had researched and written extensively about it. His outlets included Private Eye, the fortnightly satirical newsprint magazine, which was among the first to report on the scandal.

Meanwhile, the nationals, the bigwigs which love to talk up their own importance, were notably off the pace. The Mail, whose editor Geordie Greig had a personal link to the story, having a weekend cottage in a village where one of the postmasters lived, devoted some editorial space to the story in the late 2010s. Boasting with typical self-importance, when the postmasters began winning, the newspaper claimed the settlement was a victory for the Daily Mail. ‘Our £58m Post Office victory,’ it splashed.

But the newspaper hardly dedicated the same attention to the story as it does to Republican-inspired culture wars, Harry and Meghan, Westminster theatrics, and so on. Remember the fake ‘Beergate’ drama in 2021? The Mail ran a series of frontpage splashes on Starmer’s apparent beer and curry eating activities in a desperate attempt to distract from the ‘Partygate’ scandal which engulfed Boris Johnson’s government at the time. And remember the newspaper’s constant over the top support for Liz Truss? Say no more.

Today, as the mainstream media desperately backpedals on its prolonged silence on the Post Office scandal, the right-wing press seems intent on gunning for certain political figures. The Murdoch-owned Times is lashing out at Ed Davey, who was postal affairs minister in 2010 – 2012. ‘Ed Davey can make history – by resigning, was its headline this week. “Lib Dem leader has the chance to become a symbol for those who want something brought to book for the Post Office scandal,” the article continues.

Such was the singling out of Ed Davey by Nigel Farage on GB News, that the Lib Dems have called for Ofcom to investigate the broadcaster over alleged impartiality breaches.

Where are the media calls for Rishi Sunak to resign? After all, Fujitsu was awarded billions of pounds worth of contracts under his watch, even after the company’s software was found to be at fault.

And where was the media outcry when Paula Vennells was appointed as CBE for services to the Post Office and to charity in the 2019 New Year’s Honours, despite ongoing legal action against the Post Office? No, it took a petition signed by over 1 million people calling for her to hand her CBE back for the mainstreamers to bother reporting it. Then, showing typical right-wing media hypocrisy, they report the story with feverish venom.

“Stamped Out: Rishi backs calls for probe into stripping ex-Post Office boss of CBE as more than one million sign petition,” splashed the Sun this week.

Perhaps, until it captured the hearts of the nation via a televised drama, the story was considered too ‘lefty’ or dangerous to touch by the mainstream media, as Liz Gerard suggests in a piece for The New European on how the nationals missed the scandal, and the disturbing questions it raises.

As Fleet Street seemingly turns a blind eye on stories that don’t quite fit their agenda, the alternatives, the likes of Byline TimesopenDemocracyThe New European, trade publications, and of course, Left Foot Forward, are picking up the pieces, disseminating information that is ignored or overlooked by the major outlets, while reporting the truth and challenging the media mafia.

Woke-bashing of the week – Liz Truss ‘PopCon’ group calls for ‘anti-woke’ agenda to be at heart of Tory manifesto

Another Tory group of right-wing rebels is set to launch, this time, by Liz Truss. And the usual suspects are lining up to be involved – Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Simon Clarke.

Labelled ‘Popular Conservatism’ or ‘PopCon’ to make it punchier, the group is aimed at reconnecting party members and stemming defections to Reform UK. They will urge Rishi Sunak to go to the country later this year, with policies that appeal to traditional Tory voters. So, what exactly are those policies? Putting an anti-woke agenda at the heart of Tory manifesto, according to the Mail’s headline of a report on the new group.

In other words, they are likely to be looking at amending the Equality Act, which some Tory MPs blame for watering down transgender guidance in schools, and calling for reforms to the Human Right Act, amid claims it cripples the government’s strategy to remove illegal migrants to Rwanda.

Jacob Rees-Mogg explained the general doctrine of the new Tory rebel group: “It is only right that we try to ensure that the manifesto Rishi Sunak presents to the electorate is something that will chime with what Conservative voters want.

“That way we can help the PM to be re-elected and save the country from the disaster of a Starmer-led socialist government,” he said.  

Don’t these people realise that voters can see through the Right’s obsession with invented culture wars? Rees-Mogg obviously isn’t aware of, or chooses to ignore, surveys that show more than half of people feel politicians are using co-called culture wars as a political tactic to distract from other issues? And that the top issues which will determine people’s votes are the likes of living/inflation, the NHS and social care?

And such sentiment extends to traditional Tory voters. One survey found that almost three in four people who voted Tory in 2019 said there were more important things than challenging political correctness and fighting ‘culture wars.’

In this sense, in focusing on ‘anti-wokeness,’ PopCons’ aspirations to appeal to traditional Tory voters are likely to garner them little support. Why isn’t that a surprise?

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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