The people funding the Tory party: there are fewer of them than you think

New research shows that more than half of the party’s donations in the last decade came from just 50

You've heard of Michael Ashcroft – the billionaire who supposedly "owns" the Tory party – but what of Irvine Laidlaw or Michael Spencer?

Although he was targeted by the press because of his questionable tax status, Ashcroft has for many become synonymous with big cash donations and the influence that comes with it. But he is by no means the Conservative Party's biggest donor. New research by the LSE reveals the way in which huge donors are able largely to avoid publicity, while staying completely within the law, by splitting up donations between family members or personal and company donations.

By collating cash given by the Tories' biggest donors, as well as that given by their husbands, wives, family members, business partners or companies, researchers have built up a detailed picture of the people funding the party.

They found that, in the past decade, £72m – more than half of the party's declared cash donation income – was donated to the Conservative Party by just 50 of these "donor groups".

Of this, £44.5m – amounting to just under one-third (31.9 per cent) of total donations – came from the top 15.

The Tory donor Stuart Wheeler made headlines last month when he said that it was "absolutely natural and unobjectionable" for big donors to gain influence over policy, and called for the cap to be scrapped. In response to the charge that this "big donor" culture had made politics less fair, he said: "Fairness isn't the be all and end all."

Evidently, some tightening up needs to be done to ensure that the spirit as well as the letter of the law placing a cap on donations is obeyed.

You can view the list of big cash donors to the Conservative Party here.

NOTE: There is no suggestion that the Conservatives are unique in this respect. Previous LSE research highlighted the importance of big donors to all three of the major political parties.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty Images,
Show Hide image

John McDonnell praises New Labour as he enters conciliatory mode

The shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present by crediting the 1997 government. 

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, John McDonnell has been on a mission to reinvent himself as a kinder, gentler politician. He hasn’t always succeeded. In July, the shadow chancellor declared of rebel MPs: “As plotters they were fucking useless”.

But in his Labour conference speech, Corbyn’s closest ally was firmly in conciliatory mode. McDonnell thanked Owen Smith for his part in defeating the Personal Independence Payment cuts. He praised Caroline Flint, with whom he has clashed, for her amendment to the financial bill on corporate tax transparency. Jonathan Reynolds, who will soon return to the frontbench, was credited for the “patriots pay their taxes” campaign (the latter two not mentioned in the original text).

McDonnell’s ecunmenicism didn’t end here. The 1997 Labour government, against which he and Corbyn so often defined themselves, was praised for its introduction of the minimum wage (though McDonnell couldn’t quite bring himself to mention Tony Blair). Promising a “real Living Wage” of around £10 per hour, the shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present. Though he couldn’t resist adding some red water as he closed: “In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it's called socialism. Solidarity!”

As a rebuke to those who accuse him of seeking power in the party, not the country, McDonnell spoke relentlessly of what the next Labour “government” would do. He promised a £250bn National Investment Bank, a “Right to Own” for employees, the repeal of the Trade Union Act and declared himself “interested” in the potential of a Universal Basic Income. It was a decidedly wonkish speech, free of the attack lines and jokes that others serve up.

One of the more striking passages was on McDonnell’s personal story (a recurring feature of Labour speeches since Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory). “I was born in the city [Liverpool], not far from here,” he recalled. “My dad was a Liverpool docker and my mum was a cleaner who then served behind the counter at British Homes Stores for 30 years. I was part of the 1960's generation.  We lived in what sociological studies have described as some of the worst housing conditions that exist within this country. We just called it home.”

In his peroration, he declared: “In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine.” Most Labour MPs believe that a government led by Corbyn and McDonnell will remain just that: imaginary. “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one,” the shadow chancellor could have countered. With his praise for New Labour, he began the work of forging his party’s own brotherhood of man.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.