Dark Money Investigations: News

UK government faces calls in Parliament for inquiry into third-party campaigns

Labour MP John McDonnell calls on Electoral Commission to launch ‘serious and in-depth inquiry’ after openDemocracy revelations about ‘dark money’

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan
4 March 2021, 2.56pm
Citing openDemocracy's reporting, John McDonnell called for a full-inquiry in Parliament
Adam Murphy / Alamy Stock Photo

Labour’s John McDonnell has called for a “full inquiry” into a series of online campaigns that spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on anti-Jeremy Corbyn attack adverts ahead of the 2019 election.

Citing openDemocracy’s recent reporting in Parliament on Thursday 4 March, the former shadow chancellor said a “serious and in-depth inquiry into third party campaigning” was needed, after pro-Tory groups spent £700,000 without declaring any individual donations.

McDonnell said the elections watchdog needed to investigate how third-party campaigns “spent large sums on a social media advertising campaign smearing the Right Honourable Gentleman for Islington North without declaring the source of their funds”.

“This warrants a full inquiry and reform,” McDonnell told the House of Commons.

Last month openDemocracy revealed that a handful of anti-Labour campaigns with names such as Capitalist Worker and Campaign Against Corbynism spent more than £700,000 in the run-up to the 2019 election.

These ‘third-party’ campaigns – which were run by, amongst others, a former Boris Johnson aide, a Conservative councillor and a onetime Tory cabinet minister – all declared that they had not received a single donation over the £7,500 threshold for declaring donors to the Electoral Commission.

All the third-party campaigns said they had not received a single donation over the £7,500 threshold for declaring donors

McDonnell raised the case of Jennifer Powers, a former Tory intern who spent more than £65,000, publishing dozens of attack ads criticising Labour’s housing policy.

As openDemocracy revealed, Powers’ ‘Right to Rent, Right to Buy, Right to Own’ campaign bore striking similarities to another supposedly independent third-party campaign, including sending nearly identical emails in response to queries from the Electoral Commission and having very similar privacy policies on their websites.

Powers had declined to say who funded her campaign but told the Daily Mirror that “I just raised it through my own abilities... I’m sure you could raise £65,000 if you wanted to as well, if you worked really hard at it, depending on what the cause was.”

McDonnell also cited Thomas Borwick. A former Vote Leave staffer, Borwick is deputy chairman of the Cities of London and Westminster Conservative Association. During the 2019 general election, Borwick spent more than £53,000, mainly on Facebook ads that included accusations that Labour had failed Grenfell victims, and calls to vote Conservative.

The adverts were bought by a registered campaign called 3rd Party Limited, which Borwick had set up just a month before the general election.

Borwick declined to say how 3rd Party Ltd had been able to raise money so quickly with little profile, or who had provided its financial backing, but said: “All our donations have been covered in our report and documentation and we have complied with the Electoral Commission in our processes.”

Voters are being left in the dark about who is funding our politics, by out-of-date campaign rules and lax enforcement

The Labour shadow minister for media, Christian Matheson, said that he would pass on McDonnell’s concerns to the Electoral Commission.

“I can say that the commission is aware of occasions and delegations in the past where people who might not have been expected to have a certain amount of resource were suddenly able to spend that resource.

“They assure me that they monitor the activity of non-party campaigners, and where there is evidence that the law has not been followed it will consider the matter in line with its enforcement policy.”

Electoral transparency campaigners have warned that anonymous campaign spending, through third-party campaigners, risks damaging British democracy.

“Voters are being left in the dark about who is funding our politics, by out-of-date campaign rules and lax enforcement. There is a serious and sustained lack of transparency about who is steering our political debate,” Willie Sullivan, senior director at the Electoral Reform Society, told openDemocracy last month.

“Despite repeated calls for reform – from parliamentary committees to civil society groups and voters – almost no action has been taken. Ministers must close the loopholes that allow millions to be spent on political influencing with almost no scrutiny.”

The Electoral Commission has said that it is the legal responsibility of campaigners to ensure that their donations are declared fully.

The elections watchdog has also said that it monitors activity and would consider action where there is evidence that rules have not been followed.

How can we save Freedom of Information?

The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act came into force in the UK a decade and a half ago. The act has proved a crucial tool for citizens to hold government, at all levels, to account. But FOI is under threat. Responses to FOI requests are at an all-time low, and openDemocracy has found that requests are being screened and blocked.

In this free live discussion, co-ordinated by the SOAS Influencing Corridors of Power project and openDemocracy, a panel of politicians and FOI experts will explore the challenges facing official transparency in the UK and ask what can be done to protect the public's right to know.

Hear from:

Lord Clark Former Cabinet Office minister responsible for producing the white paper that led to the Freedom of Information Act 2000

Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter, openDemocracy

David Davis Conservative MP and former Brexit secretary

Peter Geoghegan Investigations editor, openDemocracy.

John McDonnell Labour MP and former shadow chancellor

Alison Scott-Baumann Project lead, SOAS Influencing Corridors of Power project

Michelle Stanistreet General secretary, National Union of Journalists

Ben Worthy Senior lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, and author of 'The Politics of Freedom of Information'

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