When asked to describe Rishi Sunak in one word, the overwhelming response from those polled by Savanta ComRes last month was ‘rich’. When he laid out the problems our country faces and declared in his first speech as PM, “I understand how difficult this moment is”, the question of how someone so wealthy could understand the economic strife of ordinary people rightly bubbled back to the surface.
But it’s not just Sunak’s personal wealth that should worry us. His rise to power gives good cause to confront the unholy alliance in our country between wealth and power, a relationship that undermines accountability and corrodes democracy.
Wealth opens doors to political power
Sunak is the richest ever occupant of 10 Downing Street. Some 150 years ago, his rise to the top would have passed without comment; yet, today it seems at odds with where we are meant to be as a nation. It appears that what we like to think of as our free and fair democracy has not yet proved strong enough to end the relationship between wealth and power.
Wealth makes politics more accessible. It remains easier to stand for election if you are wealthy, it buys you the time and resources to campaign. It permits you to take the risk of an unstable job. It allows you to be parachuted across the country to seek election in a distant seat. It opens doors to people already in power, waiting to pass the baton on.
A system in which money makes it easier for you to become a representative is arguably not representative at all.
Wealth buys political influence
However, the advantage in having a wealthy background for starting out in politics isn’t the only problem. The relationship works the other way, too: once in power, politicians are targeted by companies offering lucrative second jobs, leading to undue influence, rule-breaking and corruption.
Since 2019 alone, the list of cases where rules surrounding money and politics have been broken, bent or tested is staggering. Last year more than 200 MPs received payments from second jobs, some earning as much as £1mn in additional income. Prominent recent cases include the £6mn earnt by Geoffrey Cox for work as a lawyer since he became an MP, a sum that included payment for work in the British Virgin Islands during parliamentary sitting time.
Meanwhile Owen Patterson was found to have brought parliament into disrepute through his second job with healthcare firm Randox. Having been forced to resign over his defence of his actions, he still faces a potential £7,500 fine from the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists.
The influence of fossil fuel companies also spills into second jobs. Those on their payroll include John Hayes (whom the home secretary likes to share briefings with) and Conor Burns (recently sacked over misconduct allegations). Former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi was paid £1.3mn by an oil company for work since becoming an MP, no doubt helping to contribute to his £100m property empire, which has already landed him in hot water. The conclusion of HMRC’s investigation into his tax affairs is yet to be published.
Buying access to power with donations and cash
All of this is not to forget party donors, which for the Conservatives include the wife of an ex-Putin minister, amongst others, whose financial dealings are less than transparent. Former PM Boris Johnson attempted to bankroll himself through his low salary and costly divorce on the back of party donors, who included Lord Brownlow of wallpaper gate fame and Lord Bamford, who this summer hosted his delayed wedding reception.
Questions have also been raised over the allegation that Conservative donors who pay over £3mn will receive peerages. Several party donors have been handed public body or ministerial jobs, including Jacob Rees-Mogg’s former business partner who was given a lifetime peerage in order to accept a role in Liz Truss’s government. He was sacked after 26 days.
Party donor fiascos are nothing new – it is an issue that has beset all parties. Earlier this year it was revealed both Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians had received donations from suspected Chinese spy Christine Lee.
There have also been questions of cash for access, with the Conservatives auctioning off time with cabinet politicians at party fundraisers and offering to top donors membership of the secret ‘advisory board’ which ‘occasionally’ met with the PM and chancellor under Johnson’s administration.
Government by hedge funds and think tanks
Sunak himself has been under fire for his wife’s non-dom tax status, amidst long-running critical calls to abolish the tax loophole altogether. Her links to Infosys, a firm which is still operating in Russia eight months after agreeing to withdraw and last week paid her £7mn in dividends have also raised eyebrows. This is not to forget Sunak’s own financial links: as a hedge fund partner he made millions from a deal which “lit the touchpaper on the 2008 financial crisis” according to The Times. The last chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, met with hedge fund bosses hours after the disastrous mini-budget which eventually brought down the Truss government.
Both Truss and Kwarteng have strong links with the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), a think tank which has faced questions over the transparency of its funding. The IEA stands on the edge of the wider political industry which consists of think tanks, lobbyists, consultants and public affairs departments – all using the wealth of their funders, employers and companies to influence the decision-making process.
Wealth undermines democracy
Wealth is still altering who we elect, the decisions they make and ultimately the outcome of the political process. Distraction tactics are deployed to convince us otherwise and anyone who seeks to suggest that money is anything other than a symbol of success in a socially mobile society is dismissed. The fact remains that in the UK money can buy power and influence.
Earlier this summer Sunak said “I think in our country, we judge people not by their bank account”; yet, the mountain of evidence shows that bank accounts must at the very least be held to account. In Britain we like to talk about democratic equality, the fact that we have a fair system which awards one person one vote. But this is meaningless if there is no other part of our political system in which equality exists.
Making democracy fairer
There are plenty of measures we can introduce to make our democracy fairer.
We could adopt a new funding system for political parties. Similar countries to ours have donation limits, bans on certain types of organisations donating, and provide a large proportion of funding from the state.
The creation of an income guarantee scheme which allows candidates to participate in elections regardless of their wealth would certainly help close the parliamentary fast-track lane for the wealthy.
We could also limit rather than police the financial interests of elected representatives. We can debate whether particular cases show innocent use of incidental power or deliberate corruption, but we cannot deny the fact that a doorway exists between wealth and politics that is not accessible to much of the population. There are plenty of other professions which limit the activities of their employees, including the police and civil service. Is it really too much to ask politicians to give up their other interests altogether and commit to the job?
None of this seeks to demonise the rich, penalise success or bar the wealthy from politics altogether. What it does is introduce proportionate accountability, because with greater wealth comes greater responsibility.
If we want a truly free and fair democracy these are the changes that must be made.