A photo of the Palace of Westminster

The House of Lords this week debated, at the request of Baroness Featherstone, the “current standing of parliamentary democracy and standards in public life”. Unsurprisingly, few thought the “standing” was positive; for as in opening the debate the Liberal Democrat peer noted “only 9% of people say they generally trust political leaders”.

Crossbencher Baroness D’Souza, while acknowledging concerns, was one of the few to sound a positive note, claiming: “The Westminster model is renowned throughout the world; it is one of our most potent symbols of fairness and a key instrument of soft power.”

What she said reflects history, the result of good public relations and the force on gunboat-led diplomacy rather than careful study by foreign observers. But it is certainly not reflective of the view today. I go abroad and encounter surprisingly little anger at the messes created by UK, but sympathy that we have to work with such a creaking, outdated, undemocratic and dysfunctional system.

Of course the voting system is a big part of that. The debate was conducted on the day former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell – not perhaps usually regarded as an advocate of radical political change – told the Today podcast that the first past the post electoral system means the UK is “not a very good example of democracy”.

Democracy surely demands parliament reflect the views of the people, which is not the case now, when the majority of people voted in 2019 against the Tories, yet they have been in control for the past four long years, even if they’ve been swapping around who is in the driving seat.

But the voting system is far from our only problem. Baroness d’Souza asked rhetorically: “are our institutions delivering?” But the question should be: for whom are they delivering? There is a traditional saying that points the way to the answer: he who pays the piper calls the tune.

I put the search term “political donations UK” into an often-used search engine.

The first headline that came up was from the European edition of Politico – from June last year: “Britain’s political parties are quietly raking in millions. No one will say where its coming from”. It is a story “unincorporated associations”, which the Electoral Reform Society describes as a “dangerous loophole in our political financing rules”. The route has seen over the last five years £14 million in political funding.

The second article was from the Financial Times, about a billionaire topping the list of UK political donations with a single £5 million tossed into the Conservative Party coffers.

The third link thrown up was of an Electoral Reform Society report – “new political funding rules sneak in”. That covers how in November last year – in time for the next election – the government increased the total spending cap for a general election by 80 per cent. That’s about £35 million a party can spend.

Which reminded me of a point I was making back in 2022 when the House was debating the disastrous Elections Bill, now Act, that there is no limit on individual donations. One person – and in our grossly unequal world of swollen riches for the few there are plenty of people who could find this in a handy tax haven – could give one party that. And we are not terribly far off that now.

If the world looks at the place of big money in UK politics, that is what it will see. (And, yes, it isn’t as bad as the United States of America. Which is like saying that something doesn’t stink as badly as a rotting blue whale.)

It is not that this situation is not subjected to regular comment. A briefing from Spotlight on Corruption and Transparency International for the debate called on parliament to adopt the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommendations to cap spending and donations. It recommended that the rules should be tightened to ensure UK companies can only make donations that are genuine operating profits to prevent money of unknown provenance entering our political financial system.

Green Party policy is state funding of political parties and their activities. Some will say that is too politically difficult to sell. I don’t agree. If the people collectively pay for our politics and, as Green policy calls for, we put a small tight cap on individual and company donations, then that would profoundly change our politics.

If the vote of Mrs Patel in Penarth, Mr Berriman in Bakewell, Chris Campbell in Caldbeck – their choice perhaps to make a modest £50 donation for a politicians for who they see working for the public good – has the same financial impact – the same power – as that of a hedge fund owner or a property developer, then politicians would have to pay the same attention to their needs and wishes.

Now, however, our politicians largely dance to the interests of the few – those who are profiting mightily from the current system. That’s how the few get to keep their wealth.

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Image credit: Alex Drop – Creative Commons