New political funding rules sneak in

Jessica Garland, Director of Policy and Research

Posted on the 24th November 2023

When people are asked about the problems with money in politics, few raise the issue of there not being enough. In fact, the public are deeply concerned about big money in politics with the majority (58%) thinking there is a lack of transparency around political donations.

But the lack of money is just the ‘issue’ that the government have looked to fix.

Government increases the amount of money in politics

On Monday, the government passed a statutory instrument that 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 same statutory instrument increased the national election spending cap by 80%, from £19.5m to about £35m. This is the amount that party HQs can spend, there is another cap for how much local candidates can spend.

The statutory instrument is a legislative tool that can pass without a full debate or vote. So, these are the new caps, and there is nothing MPs can do about it. The government argues that they are just raising the levels in line with inflation, but many campaigners, such as ourselves, have questioned why this is the priority given the wider problems with money in politics.

We already had too much money in politics

Rather than fix the worrying loopholes that already exist in our system, such as the scandal of unincorporated associations which can donate under £25,000 a year without declaring the source, the government are just increasing the amount that can flood in. This decision to raise the cap shows we are moving in the wrong direction. We need more transparency and stronger regulation.

The concern here is that we end up with a politics for sale to the highest bidder, where the greatest influence is not wielded by ordinary voters but those with the deepest pockets. And this money will be targeted at only some of those voters.

With Westminster’s creaking electoral system, only a handful of seats decide who wins the election. No doubt this extra money will be targeted towards these swing seats and the result will be that whilst some voters are swamped with political ads, others will barely know there is an election.

Here’s how we end the big-donor culture

Rather than increasing the caps on anonymous donations, we need to help end the big-donor culture and help shift the balance back towards voters by bringing in a maximum amount that anyone can donate and increasing the transparency of those donations. Reducing the cap on the amount that parties are allowed to spend would help end the arms race between parties at election time, and an increased element of public funding would bring the UK more in line with other democracies, loosening the grip of the wealthy few on our democracy.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life made a range of recommendations in 2021 on issues such as unincorporated associations, donations, electoral law, digital campaigning and electoral finance which should be implemented.

The question we must ask here is ‘who benefits from this’, is it the public? They are the most important people in an election. The other question to pose is what do these very wealthy individuals expect for their money?

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