current affairs politics wealth

How to end big donor culture in politics

At the weekend, a senior fundraiser for the Conservative Party was caught out by an undercover journalist, giving guidance on how big a donation would be required to get access to the Prime Minister. The media have been jumping up and down, but nobody who’s been paying attention will be surprised. Everybody knows that we have a problem with big donors, and at the last general election every party promised to do something about it.

As things currently stand, there’s no limit to how much you can give to a political party. While the Conservatives insist that donations don’t buy you access, their own website says otherwise. There are multiple fancy-sounding clubs for donors, with varying degrees of reward. At the very top, the Leader’s Club members “are invited to join David Cameron and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners” for a membership fee of £50,000 a year. Obviously that doesn’t guarantee you any real policy changes, but it does buy your way into the same room as David Cameron, and the more you pay, the fewer people will be in that room with you.

The thing is, that’s no different from any other party. The Labour Party has its 1000 Club for people who give over £100 a month, although its biggest problem is trade union funding rather than billionaires. But then if you give big donations to charity, or the arts, likely as not you’ll get preferential treatment. Everyone who takes donations, for any cause at all, courts those that can afford to make them.

It doesn’t need to be this way. Democracy can be protected from the influence of big money, and it’s not particularly complicated. You can put limits on how much a party can spend during an election, like Israel does, so you can stop fundraising altogether once you’ve got enough. You can put a cap on individual donations, like Japan, France, Portugal or Poland. In Canada, you can give a maximum of £700. You can ban or cap contributions from corporations and organisations. To make up for the loss of income, you can subsidise political parties. German parties receive around £2 per registered voter. Taxpayers in Norway pay around £10 year. In the US, you can opt in on your tax form to support presidential candidates, at a cost of $3 a year.

Last year, the Committee for Standards in Public Life published a thorough review (pdf) on how to improve the funding of political parties in Britain. “In principle, there are three possible ways to take big money out of party politics” says the author, Sir Christopher Kelly “– restricting the amount any individual donor can give, reducing the amount the parties need to raise by limiting their expenditure, or providing funds from a source which does not risk improper influence, meaning the public purse.”

He concludes that we need all three approaches, and since there are already limits on campaign spending, the report focuses on the other two. It recommends a cap of £10,000 as a donation limit. That’s high compared to most countries that have a cap, but nowhere near the £50,000 that the Conservatives insist on. (At twice the average salary, a cap of £50,000 doesn’t remove big money from politics, especially if it’s annual) This kind of cap would apply to trade unions too, so it would impact Labour just as much as the Conservatives. It would force the main parties to broaden their support base, reaching out to more voters rather than soliciting a few wealthier ones.

To make up for the lost revenue, we would then need to subsidise our political parties. We already do, to a cost of about 36p per person. According to the Kelly report, that only needs to be raised to 50p to cover the costs – a small price to pay to stop the country’s wealthiest people buying government influence.

We know exactly what we need to do. The only reason it doesn’t happen is because the current system suits the two big parties, which are the only ones who get to make the rules. But since the government has been caught out, there’s a window of opportunity to capitalise on this no-doubt brief moment of shame. Now is the time to push them to take up the recommendations of the Kelly report, and deal with big donor culture.


  1. When you say “that’s no different from any other party” you’re wrong. The Greens most certainly don’t operate that way. Even if we had big donors, it wouldn’t buy significantly more access than party members get.

    1. I would hope so, although it’s not a problem the Greens have encountered yet in any real way, so they’re untested. If they find themselves in a position of greater influence, the temptations will come.

      But long may they continue to be different in the way the receive donations and treat their donors.

  2. “Everyone who takes donations, for any cause at all, courts those that can afford to make them.”
    Apart from the Greens, another obvious (to my mind) exception are churches, at least some of them. All the churches of which I’ve been a part have been very careful to ensure that only the treasurer (and perhaps an assistant) are aware of who the large donors are and have gone to different lengths to keep this information from the senior minister and ministry staff in order to prevent favouritism, as per James chapter 2.

    1. Yes, that’s probably a generalisation, and a result of my own cynicism towards professional fundraisers and their talk of ‘high net worth individuals’. Churches may be an exception here, but many Christian charities sadly aren’t, in my experience. The widow’s two coins are worth more than the businessman’s millions to God, but not to the finance department. I’ve also seen a number of attempts to buy influence in charities, such as offering funding that’s tied to a certain theological perspective. We ought to know better really.

  3. Jesus’ comment about the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing also springs to mind. Keeping major donors away from any form of praise or special treatment is also good for them, lest they get an inflated view of their own importance.

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