Dark Money Investigations: News

20% of UK political donations come from just ten men

Exclusive: Ten men with an average age of 70, most of whom are white, gave £106m – while women gave just one in four political donations

Adam Bychawski
21 July 2021, 12.00am
There are just nine women in the UK's top 100 biggest political donors
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John Michaels / Alamy Stock Photo

Just ten men have made a fifth of all major political donations from individuals in the UK in the past two decades, openDemocracy can reveal.

These men have given a staggering £106m to political parties and campaigns. Many have gained access to senior government ministers along the way, as well as receiving honours including knighthoods and peerages.

The top ten political donors have a current average age of 70 and include four billionaires. All but one are white, and all have given money to the Conservative Party at some point. No other cause has benefited from the generosity of all ten.

openDemocracy’s analysis of political donations also found that only one in four donors is a woman – with just nine women in the top 100 biggest donors.

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Transparency campaigners said the findings showed how concentrated and unequal donor power is in the UK.

“Political debate shouldn't be something bought by a few very wealthy individuals,” said Jess Garland, director of policy and research at the Electoral Reform Society.

“We need a level playing field, where all voters feel they have a stake in our democracy. It shouldn't just be for those with the deepest pockets. If politics is dominated by wealthy individuals it will only continue to reproduce the existing inequalities we see across society,” she added.

“Parity for women appears to be decades away,” said Felicia Willow, chief executive at the Fawcett Society, a major women’s rights group. “Government and businesses must tackle deep-rooted gender inequalities in our society and address gaps that have been widened by the pandemic.”

“Men dominate every sector of politics, public life and business,” she said, “so it’s no surprise to see this gulf mirrored in political donations.”

Supermarket tycoon Lord Sainsbury is the UK’s biggest political donor overall, handing out some £40m. In 2016, he gave £2m each to Labour and the Liberal Democrats ahead of the EU referendum.

Sainsbury announced he would end his political donations in 2017, only to then give £8m to the Lib Dems in the run-up to the 2019 election. The gift was the largest single donation ever recorded by the Electoral Commission.

The top ten donors also include Lord Farmer, a former Conservative Party treasurer and hedge fund boss.

Farmer, a born-again Christian, started supporting the Conservative Party two decades ago, reportedly in reaction to Labour’s policy of giving welfare payments to unmarried mothers. He has now given more than £8m to political parties and campaigns.

openDemocracy analysed every donation from individuals given to a political party, MP or campaign group since 2001.

MPs must declare all gifts over £500 on the Electoral Commission’s register, while political parties have to report donations of more than £7,500.

Men dominate every sector of politics, public life and business, so it’s no surprise to see this gulf mirrored in political donations

Almost all the top ten donors are Brexiteers and have donated £27m between them to Eurosceptic causes. Of this, nearly half comes from Christopher Harborne, a businessman who has donated £13m to Nigel Farage’s Reform Party since 2019. Harborne’s links to several offshore companies were revealed by the Panama Papers leaks in 2016.

Financial services billionaire Peter Hargreaves gave £3.2m to the Brexit campaign group Leave.EU in 2016. That same year, he invested £24m in a space satellite business because, he told The Times, he feared becoming “a very boring person” and felt it would prove more interesting conversation material than his grandchildren.

Many of the biggest Tory donors are thought to be members of the Leader’s Group, an elite dining club that is open only to wealthy individuals who are prepared to give at least £50,000 to the Conservatives every year.

The group enjoys direct access to Boris Johnson, as well as regular private receptions with other senior figures in the party. Almost 20% of its members have received honours after donating to the party, research by openDemocracy previously found.

Female donors

The UK’s top female donor is Christine Weir, who won £161m on the Euromillions in 2011 with her husband Colin, becoming the UK's biggest ever lottery winners. She has donated more than £2.2m to the Scottish National Party.

Diana Van Nievelt Price gave the Conservative Party £440,000 when she bought a painting of Margaret Thatcher at a party fundraising auction in 2005. She went on to donate £1m to the Vote Leave campaign.

The Labour Party’s largest female donor is Harry Potter author JK Rowling, who donated £1m in 2008. Rowling also gave £1m to the Better Campaign, which advocated for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

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But some of the biggest female donors have faced questions over whether they are acting as proxies for wealthy male relatives.

Rasha Said, the daughter of Saudi billionaire Wafic Said, gave the Tories almost £50,000 in 2008. She was just 19 at the time and was a first-year university student, while Wafic, as a non-UK resident, was not allowed to make donations to political parties in the country.

A Tory spokesperson later said the donations were an “administrative error” and should have been credited to Rosemary Said, Wafic’s wife, who has given more than £2m to the party since 2001.

Lubov Chernukhin, a Russian-born former banker, has given more than £1.7m to the Conservatives over the past eight years. Last year, it was reported that her husband, a Russian former deputy finance minister, had secretly been given $8m by an oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin in 2016.

His lawyers declined to comment on the payment at the time and said his wife’s donations to the Tories were not “tainted by Kremlin or any other influence”.

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