The means as to which the Conservative Party have sought funding in recent years has been highly controversial. Labour’s Deputy Leader, Harriet Harman, said the Tory Party rely on ‘shady money’. In an age where more and more money is being spent on campaigning and employing the very best political analysts, politics has become as much of a financial competition than a clash of ideologies. However, as a result of declining membership numbers the Conservative Party are having to rely on other tactics such as donations to keep the party afloat, some of which have been questioned by the media for threatening democracy.
Funding is crucial for any political party for several reasons. First of all, parties are employing more and more ‘SPADs’ (Special Advisors) who do research for politicians, help write policies and draft speeches. For example, the Conservative Party employed Barack Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina for the upcoming general election as well as Australian strategist Lynton Crosby. Hiring such respected strategists results in high expenses. Messina was paid $172,000 for Obama’s 2012 election as well as a further $68,550 in bonuses. David Cameron alone employed 19 SPAD’s in 2012, with the number highly likely to increase this year as a general election looms. Therefore, as these officials are not in government jobs the Party has so pay for their wages rather than the tax payer which results in high expenditure. Not only this, parties also spend their income on campaigning. The Electoral Commission has a cap of £19.5 million that can be spent by any political party fighting for all seats at the general election. The Conservatives famously spent double the Labour Party’s budget at the last general election, spending in total £16.7 million whilst the Labour Party fought on a budget of £8 million. Such money was largely spent on advertising (e.g. TV adverts and posters on billboards) and SPADs.
Party membership has fallen to a historic low in recent years. The Conservatives have as few as 135,000 members now according to a recent report by Alberto Nardelli. As recently as 1991 the Tories had 1 million members. Such a radical decline not only results in fewer campaigners on the streets for the Tory Party, but also income. To become a member of the Conservative Party currently costs £25. Therefore, to lose 90% of your party members creates a severe deficiency in income for the Party, losing millions of pounds worth of income that members previously provided.
Consequently, as a result of such high expenditure and falling membership the party has had to rely on other means of income to pay for their extortionate expenditure. The Tory Party now relies on donations from wealthy businessman and industry to keep the party afloat, but this has become highly controversial as people question the motives behind businessman deciding to donate millions of pounds to the party. Links have been made between Conservative policies as well as peers whom have donated to the party.
‘Cash for honours’ is a term for political parties awarding life peerages to big party donors. One such example is Robert Edmiston who was appointed a Lord in 2011 after several years of donating millions of pounds to the Conservative Party, including a £2 million donation in 2005 before the general election. Such cases have been widely criticized by the media and public as it appears people are now able to buy peerages providing they have donated enough to the political party in question. Furthermore, these cases could also be seen as undermining democracy as wealth appears to buy influence in the current political climate rather than merit. At a time when turnout is also decreasing, perhaps scandals such as ‘cash for honours’ further isolates normal working people from politics as it is portrayed as a vocation for the rich to get involved in as they have far more influence than the electorate through their donations.
As well as honours being exploited by the party, access to influential politicians is also something the Tory Party have been charging people for. In September 2014 the Guardian exposed how much donors were paying to have dinner with David Cameron and other Tory ministers at various functions. The Conservatives were charging £2,500 for a ticket to the Tory ‘business day’ at their Birmingham conference, which included a lunch with Mr Cameron and dinner with Mr Osborne. Moreover, to sit with ministers such as Theresa May and Philip Hammond at the 2013 Conservative Summer Ball it cost £12,000. These private dinners and fund raising evenings have yet again damaged the Tory Party image as it portrays them as the party for the rich whom the members have to buy themselves in, segregating them from ordinary working people who cannot gain such exclusive and intimate access to Tory politicians.
Even so, all of these ‘dodgy donors’ have been approved by the Electoral Commission who regulate party donations as well as campaigning. The Electoral Commission states ‘Parties have to record donations and loans they receive’ as well as ‘check they are from a permissible source’ and any large donations (such as the previous examples given) must be reported to the Electoral Commission who will scrutinise it. These measures are to try and ensure that parties are not receiving donations from illegal sources whom may be trying to influence party politics. There have been occasions when the Conservative Party have had to give back donations as the Electoral Commission did not deem the source permissible. For example, in October 2014 the Conservative Party had to hand back a £28,000 donation from a company associated with an exiled Russian banker, Andrei Borodin, who fled to UK from Russia after facing charges of £220 million in bank fraud from the Kremlin. Consequently, the Conservative Party’s issue of funding was once again highlighted as this case suggests they are desperate for capital even if their methods of obtaining it are suspect and perhaps even corrupt as they are happy to be sponsored by potential criminals.
Subsequently, there have been several suggestions as to how the current problems of party funding can be resolved to make the parties more transparent, not just the Conservative Party but all the Westminster parties. The Phillips report of 2007 concluded that state funding may be a solution to make parties more transparent. Parties could gain funds by a ‘pence-per-voter’ formula where parties receive 40p for every vote they receive at the most recent general election and a further 20p for every vote cast for them at the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and European Parliament elections. As well as meaning parties are able to stay afloat in terms of funding, this system could also be viewed as more democratic than the current one. Instead of parties, notably the Tory Party, having to appeal to the wealthiest people in Britain for donations, offering them peerages or policies that may favour them (e.g. Bernie Ecclestone’s £1 million donation to Labour that prompted the Tobacco Advertising Ban not to apply to F1), the parties have to appeal to the electorate. Therefore, parties are more enticed to engage with people as they decide how much shall be donated to the party which could result in Westminster and the electorate ‘reconnecting’ again as politicians engage with the electorate as their party depends on it. Furthermore, unlock democracy advocate tax relief for political parties, allowing them to claim tax back as charities so they can utilise more of their funds and become less dependent on donations as money is less of a problem for them.
Nonetheless, party funding is a huge issue for the Conservative Party, logistically as well as morally. Conservative Party MP Brian Binley perhaps symbolised the crisis the party has with its image concerning funding and donations when he said ‘we are all totally corrupt’. Although this statement is an exaggeration it does show how the party has become disconnected with the electorate as party membership sinks to an all-time low of 135,000 and the donors the party have to rely have dubious motives and backgrounds so they can pay for their enormous expenditure.
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