We must have transparency in political funding – here’s why
Closing one loophole would stop the world’s oligarchs, billionaires and criminals from secretly buying influence on the British government
British politics operates a bit like a protection racket. The rich and powerful pay a small portion of their money to Boris Johnson’s Tories, who in return ensure that said wealth and power are protected.
We saw this earlier this week, when it was revealed that 20% of Tory donors are property tycoons, who gave £60m to the party over the past decade. Meanwhile, the Conservatives work to rip up planning laws to ensure that said tycoons can design our future towns, cities and homes on their own terms.
We’ve seen it with the whole web of Tory donors who coincidentally keep getting lucrative COVID contracts.
But we can’t see it in the millions of pounds funnelled to the party from dark money donor groups. That doesn’t mean there isn’t protection money there too, though. Since Johnson became PM, my colleagues revealed last week, £2.6m has been smuggled to his party through a loophole in the law, relating to something called unincorporated associations.
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‘Unincorporated association’ is just a bit of legal jargon for any group of people who come together for a purpose, but don’t register themselves in a formal structure, as a company does. Most clubs or societies are unincorporated associations.
But this perfectly homely form, which emerged so any group of people can get together, agree a constitution and play bridge or campaign to save a local building, also allows the mega-rich to pump money into our politics while hiding their identities.
We don’t know exactly what these donors expect to get for their cash, because we don’t know who they are
So we don’t know all the commercial interests hidden behind these donations. We don’t know exactly what these donors expect to get for their cash, because we don’t know who they are.
But that doesn’t mean we know anything.
For many years now, my colleagues and I have dug into the dark money that fuels much of British politics, and one theme is particularly consistent. With amazing regularity, if you follow the money of Tory donors through a Companies House entry or Land Registry document or two, you soon find yourself looking at the minimalist public details of a company registered in an overseas territory or Crown Dependency.
The Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda and Gibraltar; Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man. They are often treated as a vestigial empire, which we largely ignore. But for those who want to bury treasure, these islands are paradise. With minimal tax and few transparency laws, they have become the go-to destinations for the gangsters, drug lords, mafiosi, kleptomaniac autocrats, oligarchs and billionaires of the world.
And what these places have in common is that they snuggle under the protective wings of the British state. Just as the Falklands’ Britishness was defended by the Royal Navy in the 1980s, its tax-haven siblings around the world secure diplomatic protection through their constitutional connection to a major global power.
I am not suggesting that every pound secreted to the Tories by cover of a dark money donor group is given in exchange for the government’s continued inaction on the UK’s network of treasure islands – the ongoing laxity that has allowed Global Britain to become the world’s money laundry. If we were allowed to know where this cash came from I’m sure we would find a whole web of petty corruption and backroom deals, and also plenty of grandparents holding raffles in Conservative clubs across the country.
But we can be sure of one other thing, too: many of the people whose names would be exposed by rooting out the sources of the cash pumped through these dark money donor groups would be people who make use of British treasure islands.
And those same treasure islands hide so much wealth that Dutch think tank the Transnational Institute described them recently as part of “the backbone of global capitalism”. They are where the treasure stolen from the poorest people across the planet is buried, and they are how many of the richest people on Earth avoid paying tax, ensuring that the world’s health services and education systems are threadbare when they should be palaces.
But they are vulnerable. Because ultimately, they depend on the protection of Britain, and so of Britain’s political class. They secure their position in the global economy from the lack of accountability for those payments pumped into our ruling party through dark money donor groups. And we’re coming for them.
Sign our petition to shine a light onto these groups, here.
Why should you care about freedom of information?
From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?
Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.
Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy
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