The Elections Bill could open the floodgates on party funding

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 23rd February 2022

We’ve spoken a lot about the danger of the Elections Bill, which returned to the House of Lords today. From wasting £180 million a year on an intrusive ID card scheme for voting, to hobbling the work of the independent Electoral Commission, there is a lot wrong with the bill. One seemingly less controversial part that does warrant further discussion is the proposal to end the current limit on how long Britons can live abroad and still be able to vote.

But, whilst well-intentioned, this part of the bill has could result in unintended consequences – unleashing a weakening of the rules around who funds our politics.

Alongside being able to vote, the bill proposes Britons who have been overseas for more than 15 years would also be able to donate to political parties. But expanding the ability to make political donations to those who permanently live abroad could pave the way for foreign interests to influence our politics.

The Government must carefully consider the risks of allowing unfettered donations from people that may have lived abroad for decades. As war is brewing in Eastern Europe and Chinese spies uncovered in Westminster, unscrupulous states will be looking for ways to steer our politics, meaning we should pause before opening the floodgates further.

The UK’s campaign finance rules have not been substantially updated since 2000. Since then, we have seen mounting evidence that our elections are potentially exposed to interference.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life recently published a report on political finance based on extensive public consultation, stakeholder meetings, focus group research and roundtable discussions with smaller parties, academics and returning officers. The recommendations from this report could have been the foundation for much-needed clauses in this bill, had the Elections Bill not been published two days before the CSPL report. The government would have been well aware of the Committee’s work but rushed the bill to publication resulting in it, not including the important recommendations it makes.

Our election rules have not kept up with the shifting nature of political campaigning. That’s why we are working with FairVote and Stephen Kinnock MP on a new All-Party Parliamentary Group on electoral campaigning transparency to make that case for a comprehensive review of our outdated, loophole-ridden electoral laws.

While everyone on the electoral roll has a single vote, some can use their wealth to gain further influence. There is a basic British principle that those funding our parties should be domiciled here – indeed it is in law but not enacted. Businesses donating to parties must generate revenue here, so it seems fair that individuals wishing to funnel in funds from abroad should be able to prove a consistent connection to the UK.

We need clear, consistent principles for the funding of our parties in the modern age. Our Parliament and parties should not be available to the highest bidders around the world.

Voters will not accept a situation where tax exiles and shell companies are able to exert a disproportionate sway over our politics. The Government should listen to these concerns and launch a comprehensive review of Britain’s loophole-ridden campaign rules.

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