Controversy over honours lists is not confined to recent years. Prime Minister Lloyd George was famously accused in 1922 of ‘selling’ honours in his resignation list. Another scandal erupted in 1976 with Harold Wilson’s ‘Lavender List’ and again in 2006 under Tony Blair’s ‘Cash-for-Honours’ scandal which led to a formal investigation and some seriously damaged reputations. Fast-forward to 2020, and little had changed, when PM Boris Johnson celebrated one year in office with a very controversial honours list.
Among Johnson’s 36 nominations that year, some (notably political fellow-travellers and party allies) may be considered unexceptional, like ex-chancellors Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond, or cricketer Ian Botham. But others like the Prime Minister’s brother, Jo Johnson, and Russian expat, Evgeny Lebedev, whose father was a KGB agent in the cold war years demand scrutiny.
Jo Johnson had stood down as an MP at the 2019 general election because he couldn’t support his brother. Evgeny Lebedev, owner of the Evening Standard and the Independent, had been a friend of Boris’ for many years. Accusations of nepotism and cronyism were inevitable, but repercussions amounted to little more than a few raised eyebrows. However, it was to get worse, as party donors began to appear alongside the cronies.
In 2016 David Cameron took cronyism to new heights with his resignation list after his defeat in the EU Referendum. Amongst the 46 recipients were a number of prominent Tory Party donors like Andrew Cook. This trend was confirmed in Theresa May’s 2018 New Year Honours list, when she was accused of rewarding party donors like David Brownlow, as well as establishment ‘1922 Committee’ figures like chair Graham Brady (knighted), Cheryl Gillan (dame) and Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (knighted).
While May’s list caused a stir, it was nothing compared to what emerged as Boris Johnson prepared to lead the Tories into the 2019 election. Media platform openDemocracy revealed that since 2010, the Tory Party had received more than £130 million from an elite dining club known as The Leader’s Group. The group’s 200 members (see the interactive infographic at the link above) included wealthy individuals with an interest in influencing government policy in key areas, like fossil fuels, climate change and particularly finance and investment. Some of these individuals also had known connections with Russia.
Membership was open to anyone prepared to donate at least £50,000 per annum, and was rewarded with invitations to lunches, dinners and drinks receptions where they could meet and talk with senior Tories, including cabinet ministers and even the Prime Minister. openDemocracy also established that some 36 of the Group’s donors had been awarded major honours. Electoral records showed that more than 80% of the £8.6 million raised by the Tories in the first two weeks of the election campaign had come from the Leader’s Group.
Steve Goodrich, Head of Research and Investigations at Transparency International UK at the time commented:
“Wealthy donors securing access to government ministers has continued to be a worrying practice throughout a series of governments over the years. Such a transactional approach to rewarding donors can easily give rise to the perception of some form of quid pro quo.”
Indeed, that proved to be the case. In December 2022, a Channel 4 News investigation reported by The Guardian revealed that some members of the government’s honours committees had admitted that they had come under pressure to reward Tory donors. Sir Vernon Ellis went on record saying that he had made an objection to one donor he felt was not deserving of an honour. Sir Vernon went on to describe an encounter with the late Jeremy Heywood, then Cabinet Secretary, who told him:
“You know, if you continue your position some things might happen that you don’t like, there might be some consequences.”
Another committee member said that he was “subjected to subtle pressure” to approve nominations being put forward by Downing Street. Even when rejected by the committee, he said, they just came round again and again until the desired result was achieved.
Further evidence of a ‘cash-for-honours’ scandal was discovered by The Guardian soon after the Channel 4 programme. Of the 274 Conservative peers, 27 of them had donated more than £100,000 to the Tory Party. In his three years as PM, Johnson had recommended six major donors for peerages, who would join another 34 given peerages since John major’s time in office.
New PM Rishi Sunak is widely thought to have been reluctant to sanction Johnson’s list. Nevertheless, it appeared apparently unscathed on 9 June 2023. But it had again attracted the attention of Transparency International UK, whose Policy Director Duncan Hames commented:
“We are of the view that political party leaders shouldn’t be nominating and effectively appointing members of the House of Lords. Their need to raise funds for their political campaigns creates a serious risk of corruption when they are also in a position to be able to offer that kind of patronage.”
Yet, it seems that the electorate had long been wise to these nefarious practices. A report to the Committee on Standards in Public Life on a survey by the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent, for the British Election Study, Public Attitudes to Party Funding in Britain, conducted in 2016, revealed a remarkable awareness of the issues.
In summary, the report described three main attitudes prevalent among the public:
- A substantial majority of respondents believe that large party donations are motivated by hopes for access and influence or special favours from the political party. 79% of those asked identified these as the most common motivations for donors.
- 90% of respondents believe that MPs ‘very often’ or ‘sometimes’ decide what to do based on what their donors want, rather than on what they really believe.
- The public is also clear in their belief that this behaviour is unacceptable, with 88% responding that it is ‘never’ or ‘very rarely’ acceptable for politicians to do special favours for contributors.
What the respondents said they didn’t know, was what could be done about it.
In his recent book ‘Free and Equal’, philosopher and economist Daniel Chandler discusses the issues involved. The most obvious remedy would be to impose a cap on donations so that everyone, regardless of wealth, operated on a level playing field. This would doubtless meet with strong opposition in some countries, for example the USA, where private money is part and parcel of the electoral apparatus. But it might just be acceptable in the UK, since it neither limits free speech nor favours any particular political viewpoint.
Many countries cap donations already but donation ceilings are highly variable. In the USA for example, individual donations are capped at $30,000, while in Belgium the cap is €500 per annum. In common with many other OECD countries, the UK imposes no cap on individual donations, although there are restrictions on a party’s total spending. However, this does little to address the problem of disproportionate influence from larger donors.
Asked what level of capping they might support, most respondents in the British Election Study said they didn’t know, while those who had an opinion varied across the government/opposition divide. With the exception of Plaid Cymru, opposition parties plumped for the lowest cap suggested, £7,500, which is the current limit beyond which donations must be declared. Perhaps predictably, 25% of Conservative voters thought there should be no cap at all.
However, no-one thinks that even multiple donations of £7,500 is enough to run a political party, let alone cover election expenses, so many countries have introduced state funding. In the UK, this takes the form of ‘short money’ – funding based on a number of criteria relating to seats won and votes gained in the last election – designed to offset administrative costs but not election expenses.
Daniel Chandler thinks this sort of arrangement is self-defeating:
“But this retrospective system tends to favour the incumbents, and creates something of a ‘catch-22’ for new parties: they need funding to win elections, but they need to win elections to secure funding.”
The Democracy Voucher
Instead, Chandler advocates putting party funding directly into the hands of the citizen through a form of ‘democracy voucher’. Running alongside an equitably capped system of donations – or maybe replacing it entirely – this would see the state provide each citizen with a small sum annually – say £50 – which she/he could donate to the party of their choice.
After a referendum in 2015 approved the idea, the north-western city of Seattle in the US ran just such a voucher scheme in their municipal election round of 2017. Each registered voter was given four $25 vouchers which they could give to one or more candidates of their choice. Candidates had to meet certain eligibility criteria. They had to have:
- already raised between $1,500 and $6,000 from a minimum number of donors;
- agreed to campaign finance restrictions, including accepting no more than $250 of non-voucher funds from any individual contributor (or $500 for candidates standing for the office of mayor), and
- agreed to cap campaign spending to a determined limit. In addition, participating candidates must not have received any contributions from a person or organization with more than $250,000 in service contracts with the city. People who are not eligible to vote, such as permanent residents, were also eligible
Chandler reports that vouchers have been used now in three city elections and that this has resulted in not only the number of individual donors increasing by over 350%, but also an 86% increase in the number of candidates, with many new challengers unseating incumbents.
Although wealthy individuals and corporations would still have a measure of influence over political parties through lobbying and other types of advocacy groups, a democracy voucher system would have undeniable advantages, as Chandler describes in his book:
“Democracy vouchers would transform our political system: they would give everyone an equal opportunity to influence political parties through donations; they would give parties an incentive to engage with the widest possible spectrum of voters; and they would encourage popular engagement in politics more widely, sparking conversations among friends and families about which party has the best ideas and who should get their voucher.”
What chance we move to such a system in the UK? Well, it won’t happen – unless we demand it.
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