Flagrant financial rule breaking of the Vote Leave campaign during the EU referendum inspired Peter Geoghegan’s latest book Democracy for Sale. He spoke to David Hennessy.
Peter Geoghegan’s just published Democracy for Sale, Dark Money and Dirty Politics attempts to document the full extent to which covert bribes and financial gifts shape today’s politics.
The very worst example of it was the 2016 Brexit referendum, followed by the UK’s two most recent general elections.
The author, who is from Longford and leads the investigations unit at OpenDemocracy, says the UK’s electoral regulations are too weak and the penalties for wrongdoers too low.
He cites the brazen rule breaking of the Vote Leave campaign who funnelled funds illegally to ‘social media ninjas’ as an example of blatant political lawbreaking not only going unpunished but actively rewarded.
Geoghegan also illustrates the rise of influential think tanks who can push the agendas of anonymous donors all while the invention of social media makes spreading disinformation and malpractice easier than ever to do and harder than ever to track.
The book has struck a chord possibly because abuse of power and interference in British politics have both in the news recently.
Peter told The Irish World: “These are the kind of issues people are talking about.
“Just the week before the book was released, you had Boris Johnson’s dissolution honours list in which he gave his brother a peerage and then you have the Russia report which the government tried to squash.
“The Russia report basically says there’s nobody looking after our democracy and it’s wide open to interference from all and sundry.
“Even the scandal around (Housing Secretary) Robert Jenrick and (former pornographer turned property developer) Richard Desmond and that big (billion pound) property development in east London – Jenrick admitted bias in overruling his own planning officers to grant the planning permission.
“I’ve been writing about this stuff for a long time and I didn’t realise what the context in which it would come out would be, but I think it’s come out with a sense of what’s happening.”
There have been promises of electoral reform but no party seems genuinely prepared to tackle the real issues.
“On the very morning the Russia Report came out, Chloe Smith who is the cabinet office minister under Michael Gove, was giving evidence at a parliamentary committee and she said electoral reform or consolidation of electoral law in Britain was a priority for the government.
“The only thing the government has committed to is introducing mandatory voter identification for general elections in Britain – attacking a problem that doesn’t exist.
“I think there’s seven cases, less than ten for sure, of electoral impersonation before the 2017 general election, I imagine it’s like the 2019 general election. But it plays well, this idea of people stealing votes.
“Vote stealing and voter impersonation in Great Britain isn’t an issue, but it looks as if the government is doing something on electoral reform while doing nothing to tackle the real problems.
There’s no evidence of that, there’s no evidence that the problem in Britain is to do with the actual act of voting.
“In my book I do not talk about that. What I AM talking about is influence and that’s hugely increased – but the government is ignoring the role of influence and unaccountable influence and focusing on the one thing that really isn’t a major problem, actual voter fraud.
“What that actually ends up doing is eroding trust in the electoral process and we have seen that. There is an erosion of trust and across the political spectrum.
“We’re now in a situation in Britain especially in the last few months I think where you have all the rules seem to go out the window. The Dominic Cummings playbook is there are no rules, do whatever wins.”
Boris Johnson’s chief advisor Cummings and the Leave campaign’s wilful lawbreaking is documented in the book as a worrying example that other politicians may follow.
“The first chapter in my book is all about Vote Leave and it starts off with a quote from Dominic Cummings to a donor saying, ‘You can give us this money, we’ll give it to social media ninjas and it’s all totally legal’.
“The problem for Dominic Cummings in that instance, or it should have been the problem, was it wasn’t legal – but the fact that Dominic Cummings oversaw a campaign that broke the law has not in any way damaged his political career. If anything, it has enhanced it. It’s enhanced his standing as a man who will stop at nothing to win and that means he’s becoming a more sought after commodity.
“He’s more listened to within the corridors of power, the concern I would have is that becomes the new normal. We’re already starting to see it.
“I’ve had conversations with people, off the record, across the political sphere saying the opposition benches are almost saying, ‘What we need to do is copy that, that’s how we win’. I think that’s how you end up with a very American system of politics.
“What we’ve seen is friends of the conservative party, friends of Dominic Cummings, well placed political people getting significant government contracts often without a tender process and you’re going, ‘What? How is this happening?’
“There’s a sense of impunity around British politics right now that is really worrying. I’m surprised that since I finished the book, it has got worse.”
During the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign a very expensive Vote Leave wraparound advertisement appeared on a British newspaper not circulated in Northern Ireland but nevertheless paid for by the DUP.
The party received a donation of £435,000 to pay for its Brexit campaign advertising.
It struck Peter as odd that the DUP should be paying for such expensive advertising. That was the start of Democracy for Sale.
“On my trip to Sunderland ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum. I saw a copy of the Metro newspaper on the train with a big advert on it saying, ‘Take back control’ with the ‘Vote Leave’ slogan.
“I noticed that was funded by the DUP and that got me looking into political funding and made me go, ‘Where’s this money coming from?’ I also started looking at where the money is coming from in politics in general.
“It was a question I hadn’t really asked that much before and I have been very interested in the answers: The extent to which British politics relies on a small number of super rich donors, the way it’s possible to buy access into British politics but also how the communications revolution has really turbo-charged this kind of stuff.
“Academics will tell you if you get a message and you think it’s come from a party source, you will filter that message in your brain but if you think it’s come from an independent source, you will think about it differently.
“We all do that in our daily lives, but it’s become much easier to hoodwink people into thinking what they’re seeing isn’t partisan when really it is.
“I write a lot in the book about the rise in these think tanks in Britain and the rise of anonymously funded lobbying. Organisations rely on corporate funding and don’t reveal where their funding comes from but make it look as if these are independent organisations. An educational charity may technically have a charitable status but it’s funded by corporate donors. It doesn’t declare its donors so when someone like that appears on television they sound independent but you don’t know where their influence is coming from or who’s buying that influence. That’s the kind of thing that even surprised me when I started delving into it, the extent to which that kind of influence exists in British politics.”
Peter never found out where the DUP got money for that Metro Brexit ad, some people went to great lengths to stop the information becoming public.
“It’s a remarkable thing. You spend four years doing research, write an entire book and I still don’t know where the almost £500,000 the DUP got ahead of the Brexit referendum came from.
“It would have been very, very easy for the government to tell us that.
“At the time donor secrecy laws in Northern Ireland meant donations weren’t published.
“At that stage, a bill had already got through the Commons, in 2014, to allow for donor transparency.
“After that legislation, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland could at any stage with just a flick of a pen backdate that, so it meant all the donations from 2014 onward were published.
“All the political parties knew this, and the DUP accepted that money in the tail end of the referendum campaign, the middle of June 2016.
“They knew that that donation could come out. At that stage the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland could have easily just published that donation and around the same time there was a snap general election and Theresa May lost her majority and she relied on who for her majority? The DUP.
“As I write in the book, there was a meeting in the House of Commons with the Northern Ireland Select Committee discussing this proposal to bring in donor transparency in Northern Ireland but not to backdate it even though the legislation existed to do that.
“The easiest thing to do was backdate it. They filed into a room in the back of the Commons and there was nine Tory and eight opposition MPs and the Tories all went together to vote to not backdate it which is what the DUP wanted and actually Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley Junior attended that meeting to, I guess, make sure everything went to plan. That really shows the extent to which it went to stop that donation being made public.
“£20,000 is the maximum fine for breaking electoral law.
“The lowest donation to become a member of the Tory Leader’s Group of leading donors is £60,000 a year so it’s less than half of that. It’s a tiny amount of money.
“No one will go to prison; no individual is ever prosecuted. It’s really just become the cost of doing business, being fined for breaking electoral law.”
If British democracy is so open to corruption, what can be done to stop it? “There’s lots of things that could be done to help fix the system.
The main thing to do is try to take the money out of politics.
“As long as parties are so reliant on small numbers of large donors, there will always be conflict of interest.
“Britain is unusual in that (parties and politicians) can accept unlimited amounts of private money into politics.
“In France €7,500 a year is the maximum individual donation. In Britain it would be easy to bring in a maximum individual donation of £10,000 and that would force political parties to try and broaden their donor base.
“The other thing we could do is the state could provide more funding for political parties so they wouldn’t be as reliant on large donors.
One way of doing that might be if you were to match them on small donations say upwards of £250, that would encourage political parties to go and try and get more small donations.
“There’s loads of things you could do that would solve the problem of political parties being reliant on money.
“The problem now is that you’re relying on politicians to want to do that.
“There’s a lot about America’s politics and a lot about America’s money that I think is really worrying but actually there’s some aspects of American politics that we could emulate like having far more transparency in lobbying.
“In Britain we actually have this idea, ‘Everyone’s a good chap and everyone will play fair’. It’s quite clear that’s not the case now and it probably never has been, but I think that attitude still exists.
“Trust in our politics has been really badly damaged. You can see that in opinion poll after opinion poll, people have low trust for politicians, and I think that’s a bad thing. I think it contributes to a lack of trust in democracy which is a dangerous place.
“Writing a book like this there’s part of me thinking, ‘I am contributing almost to this’. The only way to understand about the problem is to really interrogate it and then try and do something about it.
“We’re getting past the point where we can just try and ignore these things because the public is losing trust in the political class. The answer to that can’t be not to tell these stories.
“As somebody who has been around politics a long time, they’re not all the same- there’re good politicians in every political party and there’re bad politicians in every political party.
“The problem is less to do with the political party and more to do with the access and lack of transparency that allows bad people to corrupt the system.”
Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics by Peter Geoghegan is out now.