Here we go again. Another year, another major scandal revolving around big money distorting our democracy. With the UK still divided over the 2016 referendum result, the allegations made by a whistleblower that Vote Leave potentially broken spending rules have been met with vitriol from all sides - from those suggesting that the newspaper publishing the allegations are just sore losers failing to get to grips with the fact Remain lost, to those now saying that the potential breach of referendum spending limits should invalidate the result altogether. But cutting through the noise, this is really a story about the same old tricks being used with different packaging.
Just another dodgy donation?
Vote Leave has been accused by whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni, of breaking referendum spending limits. These allegations centre around a £6250,000 donation that was made to the supposedly independent organisation, BeLeave, and then channeled to the data service Aggregate IQ, which has links to Cambridge Analytica. Many questions have been raised about the nature of this donation after fashion student Darren Grimes of BeLeave was handed more than half a million pounds days before the referendum.
The precise allegation is that there was coordination between Vote Leave and BeLeave around what would happen with the cash. Coordination between campaign groups is not legal under British electoral law. So, if this donation wasn’t made independently, then the £625,000 should have counted towards Vote Leave’s spending total, and not that of BeLeave. Crucially, if this amount was counted as part of Vote Leave’s total, they would have broken the referendum spending limit.
In November 2017 the Electoral Commission opened a still ongoing investigation into precisely the matter of whether campaign finance rules were breached under the Political Parties, Electoral and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) and the European Union referendum Act 2015.
All about the principle, not the pound signs
To take a step back for a moment, it’s worth unpicking why exactly this matters. Why should we care about a £625,000 donation? As some have pointed out, if the issue is just about money influencing the referendum result then shouldn’t we also be talking about the role of the Government itself, which was able to throw a huge amount of resources towards the Remain campaign?
The main concern here is not about whether this donation influenced the referendum result. For starters, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to precisely measure the impact of that donation on the outcome. Rather, it is the continual flouting of campaign finance rules by an emboldened elite, confident that government inertia will lead to no reform and just business as usual.
Political campaign finance rules, like caps on donations and spending, exist to create a level playing field in elections and referendums. These rules aim to stop the course of our elections being determined by a handful of millionaires and billionaires, or big corporations, that can afford to throw their money at their party or campaign of choice.
What Vote Leave is accused of doing - trying to hide a donation so that they didn’t break the spending limit - is nothing new to UK politics. It’s the norm for shady tactics to be used to exploit loopholes in our campaign finance system, so that donors can be masked and spending limits broken. It’s fairly routine, for example, for rich donors to give money to their friends and family that then finds its way into the pockets of their political party of choice. It’s also fairly routine for donors to set up a shell company through which to channel a political donation and hide the identity of the real source.
Similarly, it is nothing new for a campaign to break the rules, perhaps feeling safe in the knowledge that nothing will change. In March 2017 for example, the Conservatives were handed a historically high fine of £70,000 for filing inaccurate spending returns. But that pales in comparison with the £15.2million spent by the party during that election. The penalties currently in place for breaking election rules are so measly that breaking the law has become a price worth paying, for those with the cash to splash.
Why should we care? Well, if there’s no real deterrent for breaking campaign financing rules, and loopholes in the law are gaping wide and gameable by those with money, then our democracy is for sale.
Overcoming political inertia
Time and time again campaigners have called for the Electoral Commission to be empowered. It needs to be able to impose hefty fines that will act as a real deterrent to breaking the law, so that political parties and campaigners don’t overspend. At the moment, the measly fines the Commission can hand out means we’re stuck in a cycle of break the law, pay the fine, repeat.
We desperately need an overhaul of political campaigning and financing rules. But it has once again been left to journalists and whistleblowers to expose corruption in our political system. How many more times will big money be allowed to distort our democratic processes before politicians take action?
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Find out more about the loopholes in UK electoral law that enable dodgy donors in our 2017 satirical pamphlet, How to be a Dodgy Donor.