Political parties are too reliant on big donors – and it has to change

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive

Posted on the 5th January 2018

Huge swathes of the public believe big donors hold too much political sway  – and yet again it has been revealed just how reliant parties are on the cash of very few. 

The Mirror today published research findings showing that 39% of all cash donations to the Conservative Party declared so far this year are from 64 individuals and their businesses. 

The 64 in question are all members of an exclusive donor club with a £50,000 annual membership fee. 

This grants them access to senior party figures via swanky dinner events. Ministers who have attended in the first half of this year include Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Philip Hammond and Jeremy Wright.  

There are plain risks for democracy of such access to politicians – echoed earlier this week following revelations about continued dining privileges for retired peers. It appears there is more than one Private Members’ Club in Westminster of which membership comes with the potential of exerting great influence.

Another concern about these 64 donors afforded time with ministers is that there is a huge gender imbalance. Just two of the elite group are women.  

By no means is this a problem confined to the Conservative party. A breakdown of donations to the Labour Party in 2016, the last full year for which data is available, revealed nearly 46% of its cash gifts were made by Trade Unions.  

Parties should be providing a vehicle for the views of its supporters free from financial influence.

What reason do people have to join political parties when they see those with the deepest pockets having greater influence on policy decisions? 

Steps need to be taken to clean up party funding. A cap on donations would be a start.  

To ensure a more democratic system, it is likely that public funding would have to feature more heavily than it currently does.  

The idea of funding political parties may irk much of the public, but it is important to remember that for all their failings they play a key role in our democracy, not least in providing a platform for the views of the public.  

Currently, public funds account for less than 3% of Labour’s total donations and less than 0.5% of the Conservatives.  

Undoubtedly there are hurdles to be overcome in effectively reforming party funding – but the democratic need to do so is a pressing as ever. 

Read the Electoral Reform Society’s report, Deal or No Deal 

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