Dark Money Investigations: News

Dark money is the ‘real problem’ in British politics, claims SNP MP

Stewart Hosie says UK government’s elections bill suppresses voters, while failing to address the influence of anonymous donations

Adam Bychawski
24 September 2021, 11.55am
The bill would introduce mandatory voter IDs.
C RichSTOCK/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

A senior opposition MP has condemned the UK government’s planned election reforms for failing to tackle the influence of anonymous political donations.

The Elections Bill has been criticised by MPs and campaigners for proposing to make photo ID compulsory at polling stations and giving ministers greater control over the elections watchdog.    

Stewart Hosie, the Scottish National Party’s shadow cabinet office minister, said that voter ID was unnecessary and that the measures failed to address the electoral system’s vulnerability to so-called ‘dark money’.

Half the public think there is inadequate regulation of political party spending and only 14% think there is transparency around it,” said Hosie during a House of Commons debate on Thursday. 

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“Why could it be that this government is planning to suppress the right of ordinary people to vote rather than tackle the real problem of dark money buying influence in the democratic process?”

‘Threats to fairness’

Dark money refers to money given to political parties, campaigns or politicians, whose sources are not disclosed in an attempt to influence the democratic process. Almost 19,000 people have signed a petition on the openDemocracy website calling for the government to increase transparency and regulation of dark money donor groups.

The former electoral commissioner, David Howarth, writing for openDemocracy earlier this month, called the government’s voter ID plan “a trap” designed to divert attention from other proposals in the bill that are “serious threats to the fairness of all future elections in Britain”.

Howarth called the proposed changes to the Electoral Commission “appalling” and said they could result in the elections regulator favouring the ruling party.

He also criticised measures that would give the government powers to choose which groups qualify as third-party campaign groups, which could “allow it to ban organisations it objects to” such as trade unions or protest groups such as Black Lives Matter.

Third-party campaign groups are classed as individuals or organisations that campaign in the run-up to elections but do not stand as political parties or candidates. Many of these groups do not declare the source of their funding.

Earlier this year, openDemocracy revealed that several pro-Tory third-party campaign groups spent more than £700,000 ahead of the 2019 general election without declaring a single donation, only to disappear months later.

A report by the government’s independent ethics body published in July found that loopholes in election law could enable secretive groups to act as “a route for foreign money to influence UK elections”.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life has warned that “no transparency” is required when these groups, known in a legal sense as ‘unincorporated associations’, donate to individual MPs. It added that the people funding them “are not required to be permissible donors”.

openDemocracy revealed in July that British political parties have reported donations worth £12.9m through unincorporated associations in the past five years. Of this sum, £4.1m has been declared since Boris Johnson became prime minister in July 2019, with the majority (£2.6m) going to his party.

In response to Hosie’s claims during Thursday’s debate, Michael Ellis, a cabinet office minister, said the government was seeking “to protect the voting system... by increasing confidence in the system”. 

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