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How dark money is drowning British democracy

Organisations which fund political parties are meant to declare all major donations they receive. Yet only one ever has.

Who is funding Theresa May's campaign? Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Obscure organisations have been pouring millions of pounds into the Conservative party without revealing the source of their funds, new research from openDemocracy reveals today. 

Since July 2009, the Conservative party has received nearly £12 million from a little-known type of organisation called ‘unincorporated associations’.

July 2009 is relevant, because that is when a new law kicked in, regulating these sorts of donations. But new research by openDemocracy has led to serious questions about whether that law is really doing anything to prevent a flood of secret donations.

What is an 'unincorporated association'?

'Unincorporated associations' are defined as organisations which have a constitution and at least two members, but aren’t registered in any other way – for example as a company or a trade union. They might be a social club or a sports club or a campaign group.

It’s not just the Tories who receive money from them. Over the same period, the Labour party got over £9 million from unincorporated associations; the Liberal Democrats, over £5 million; UKIP, £80,000 and the Green Party and the SNP, nothing.

In itself, there is absolutely nothing wrong with these sorts of donations. For example, when the Gillingham and Rainham Constituency Labour Party decided to give £1,500 to the central party this year, this was counted as a donation from an unincorporated association to Labour.

But they are also open to abuse. After all, if you wanted to funnel money anonymously into a party, circumventing transparency laws, why not do it through one of these groups? And so, in 2009 Political Parties and Elections Act laid down some rules. It was designed to ensure that these sorts of organisations weren’t used as fronts for donations to be hidden from public scrutiny.

If you wanted to funnel money anonymously into a party, circumventing transparency laws, why not do it through one of these groups?

As the Electoral Commission website puts it:

“Unincorporated Associations that donate more than £25,000 in a calendar year are required to register with us and report gifts in excess of £7,500."

The register of Unincorporated Associations is here(.xls). It includes 62 different organisations, though it isn’t complete: openDemocracy has revealed today that the Scottish Conservatives appear to have accepted a donation of £100,000 from an unregistered group not listed here. It isn’t clear how many more groups have also donated more than £25,000 without registering.

But we can also reveal today that, since the Act in 2009, only one registered unincorporated association has ever admitted to receiving a donation of more than £7,500. The spreadsheet of registered donations on the Electoral Commission website only records six donations, made over 2013 and 2014, by two donors, all to the same Association, the Conservative donors the Trevelyan Campaign Fund.

The complete register of gifts to Unincorporated Associations, 2009-2017.

This means that every other unincorporated association donating more than £25,000 claims it hasn’t received any donation of more than £7,500 over the course of 12 months from any individual since 2009. Either that, or it’s failed to comply with this key transparency law. So – extraordinarily – it seems that, with one small exception, all of the £12 million which has gone to the Conservative party through these organisations came in the form of ‘small’ donations.

While it is of course possible that it is true – and we certainly aren’t accusing any specific organisation of breaching this law – it does raise serious questions about the extent to which the system is open to abuse. The 2009 Elections Act was passed to ensure that unincorporated associations couldn’t funnel dark money into our election system. But in reality, there are still millions of pounds flooding our democracy through these organisations. We have no idea where it is coming from. We have no idea what they are demanding of our politicians. And we have no idea what they are getting from them.

Read more: The dark money driving the Scottish Tory surge.

About the authors

Adam Ramsay is the Co-Editor of openDemocracyUK and also works with Bright Green. Before, he was a full time campaigner with People & Planet. You can follow him at @adamramsay.

Peter Geoghegan is investigations editor of openDemocracy's main site. He can be found on Twitter @PeterKGeoghegan.

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