If ever there was a story which revealed the disproportionate influence exerted by big party donors, it was the on the front page of The Times on Tuesday.
The article set out what has been described as a ‘donors’ revolt’ over Theresa May’s leadership, based on an account of a fundraising event held last week.
At the event it was reported that “about a quarter of the 50 donors present were said to have demanded her resignation.”
The story reflects the nature of power in the UK: a handful of wealthy individuals can buy access to government Ministers – and with it, the ability to ensure their views are heard on the front pages.
What distinguishes these individuals from most other people, of course, is the fact they are bankrolling the Conservative Party led by Mrs May.
But should that fact alone – particularly when very few people can afford to make significant donations to a political party – entitle them to have such a domineering voice on their leader’s credentials?
In a 21st century democracy, the answer should be a clear ‘no’. The Prime Minister and the government should be accountable to all citizens – regardless of how much money they have.
But the problem of big money in politics is not a new one. Senior politicians from a variety of different parties have been held to ransom by those with the deepest pockets – a fact which has led to scandal after scandal over the years: from Labour’s ‘cash for honours’ crisis, to the Liberal Democrats being caught arranging a private meeting with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury for a potentially illegal donor.
As we noted in our report, ‘Deal or No Deal: How to Put an End to Party Funding Scandals’, there is an expectation that comes with donations. The Committee on Standards in Public Life interviewed several of the major party donors in 2011, throwing up some uncomfortable if wholly logical conclusions about the relationship between donations, policy influence and honors.
Donor Stuart Wheeler suggested it was ‘natural’ and unobjectionable that donors would gain policy influence: “If it is influence in the sense of being able to put their views on what is best for the country and how the country should be run, I do not see any objection to that.”
House of Lords appointee Michael Farmer suggested that many donors would expect an honour in return for their finance:
“You cannot get away from the fact that the word ‘peerage’ is connected to large donations, so if you are giving a large donation there is a part of your mind somewhere that every now and then thinks about it”
The problem with the UK’s big-donor culture, even when the donations are legitimate, is that it gives those with the most money a disproportionately large say.
The story this week concerned just a handful of very rich individuals. Compare that to the 12.4 million people who voted for the Conservative party at last year’s election.
It highlights once again that the system of party funding in this country is broken and skews politics away from ordinary people who should be at the forefront of politicians’ minds when they are making decisions.
The ability to purchase political influence is damaging to trust and confidence in our democratic institutions. It is time we had a fairer model for funding our politics – one which put voters at the centre.