We like to imagine we live in a thriving democracy, where we all have a say in how our country is run and by whom. We trust that our democratic systems will be observed and safeguarded by each government administration and that governments will act in the interests of the country.
While it suits politicians to encourage us to believe that representative democracy is alive and well, the sad truth is that, under this Conservative government, control has fallen into the hands of minority vested interests, resulting in political shifts to the right and democracy-limiting legislation. We have a government that is not working for the country, but instead for its largely elderly members, for its donors and for itself.
The undue influence of Conservative Party members
The Conservative Party membership is the electorate that both chooses Conservative parliamentary candidates in constituencies and also chooses between two candidates when a party leader (eg Cameron, May) has to be replaced. Yet, the current membership of this influential electorate is put at just 124,000 (2018 figures) and consists mainly of pensioner age and relatively (sometimes very) wealthy white males. Their most recent choice was to prefer Boris Johnson over Jeremy Hunt.
Back in 1955, membership of the Conservative and Unionist Party stood at three million. At that point, the membership might have been considered reasonably representative of the population as a whole. However, in the last five years, many decent, moderate Tories have left the party, whilst the party has been infiltrated by ex-UKIP types. In consequence, the centre of gravity of the party has shifted to the right and has become more Eurosceptic. And because of the influence wielded by the members in choosing MPs and leaders, all UK politics has been dragged disproportionately to the right.
Entrenching a shift to the right
Soon we are likely to have a contest to replace Boris Johnson. Since the Conservative MPs have themselves become more right-wing and Eurosceptic, any candidate wishing to become prime minister thus has to appeal in succession to two equally biased electorates: first, to their colleagues on the government benches and secondly, if they make it to the final two ‘run off’, to the so-called ‘grass roots members’ – all 124,000 of them.
This process will entrench a shift to the right and to Euroscepticism that is out of step with over 60 percent of the country. Some 124,000 old, rich, white men are having an influence way beyond that which is appropriate.
Influence for sale: Conservative Party donors
Funding for the Conservative Party comes increasingly from fewer sources, partly due to the decline in membership and the reduced heft of constituency associations. However, newer, highly lucrative sources have emerged.
Many of these are part of a ‘leader’s group’ dining club, where for a donation of £50,000 a year or more, people gain access to the prime minister and other senior government ministers at dinners, drinks and receptions. The Guardian reported in 2015 that members of the group as originally set up by David Cameron said when contacted that “while the events were enjoyable, they were also used to develop policy and debate how to improve the country”. Membership, according to Open Democracy, has included “individuals linked to Russia, fossil fuels and climate denial”, with the group accounting for more than 80 percent of the funds raised for the 2019 election.
A further democratically unwelcome development has been the creation of an even more elite club for donors who give £25,000 a year or more. This entitles members to meet “with senior party figures for ‘political updates’” and is described by Labour party chair Anneliese Dodds as “less of an advisory board than a means for a select group of elite donors to gain privileged access to the prime minister and the chancellor”.
We have reached the situation where, as Liberal Democrat peer Lord Wallace has said, “It’s the donors who influence the party leadership now, not the members”.
The financial sector tightens its grip
The financial sector is an increasingly important source of funding for the Conservative Party, in particular, as reported by Open Democracy, hedge funds and private equity, many of whom backed Brexit. A case in point is Crispin Odey who has strong connections with the Conservative Party and is a big donor. Peter Geoghegan (Democracy For Sale, p 145) reports that Odey, a hedge fund manager, “made £220 million on referendum night betting that sterling would collapse if Leave won”.
The worry now for our democracy is expressed by Margaret Hodge: that it is the paid-for influence of hedge funds that will dictate policy, driving “the UK towards a Singapore-on-Thames-style model of light-touch regulation and low business taxes.” The result, as she says, is that “as ever the Tory party will make workers shoulder the burden and prop up the economy”.
The Russian connection
In July 2020, the government finally (after Johnson had sat on it for months) published the Russia report of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. The report referred to Russian influence in the UK as being “the new normal” and went on to talk of Britain “welcoming oligarchs with open arms”. It identified mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled through what has been referred to as the London ‘laundromat’, with our capital being dubbed ‘Londongrad’.
The report damningly concludes: “The money was also invested in extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment”, providing “access to companies and political figures, meaning they have a means for influence”.
Evgeny Lebedev is the son of Alexander, a former KGB agent. He owns the Evening Standard and the Independent and has a reputation for throwing great parties. The day following his 2019 general election victory, Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds attended what The Guardian described as “a caviar-fuelled Christmas party” thrown by Alexander Lebedev and his son. Previously, in 2018, Johnson had flown out to Perugia to enjoy a lavish Evgeny party thrown in the latter’s castle there.
In July 2020, the prime minister nominated Evgeny Lebedev to a life peerage in the House of Lords. Baron Lebedev now sits as a crossbench peer.