Almost half of UK political donations come from private wealthy ‘super-donors’, new research findsWednesday 23 Nov 2022
A new study reveals the growing influence of wealthy individuals in political affairs, particularly in the affairs of the Conservative party. The report also highlights a growing inequality between the financial resources of the two leading parties, which could have significant effects for democracy over the long term.
New research from the CAGE Research CentreLink opens in a new window at the University of Warwick explores political donations to UK parties over the last 20 years. The data reveals that donations have almost trebled over the period, rising from £41 million in 2001 to £101 million in 2019. Individual giving has also risen substantially, with 60% of donations in 2019 coming from private individuals.
The increases in donations have favoured the Conservative party, which had £27 million more in financial resources than Labour in 2019, even when taking account of the public funding received by Labour (known as ‘Short Money’) that is designed to balance resources across the parties.
- Almost half of donations received in 2019 (45.4%) came from private individual ‘super-donors’, who gave at least £100,000 in a single year. In 2017, they made up only 30.8% of total donations.
- The growth in donations from private super-donors is driven by a small group of individuals donating more and more often. In the 2019 election year, 104 super donors gifted £46 million an average of £442,000 each.
- The Conservative party is the main recipient of super-donor gifts. In 2019, they received £21.5 million from 71 private super-donors. The Brexit Party (now ‘Reform UK’) was also notable in receiving the top donation in 2019 – £9.7 million from the businessman Christopher Harborne.
- The 2019 election year saw the biggest surge in donations across the 20-year period, reaching £101 million in real terms. This was an increase of around £37 million relative to the level in 2017. In contrast, total donations actually fell by £7 million between the 2015 and 2017 elections.
- This surge disproportionately benefited the Conservative Party, who received £17 million more than in 2015 (+48% change). In contrast, Labour experienced a £6.2 million drop in total donations (-26.7% change).
- Private individuals accounted for 60% of all donations in the 2019 election. This compares to approximately 40% in the early and mid-2000s and 50% during the 2010s up until 2019.
The findings reveal the growing influence of wealthy individuals in political affairs, particularly in the affairs of the Conservative party. They also highlight a growing inequality between the financial resources of the two leading parties, which could have significant effects for democracy over the long term.
Opposition parties are given ‘Short Money’ as financial assistance to rebalance the financial advantage gained from being the sitting government. Historically, this money has been enough to level the playing field. But the surge in donations to the Conservative party over the last 5 years means that this is no longer the case.
Professor Mirko Draca, from the CAGE Research CentreLink opens in a new window and the University of Warwick, said, “We estimate that the resource gap between Conservatives and Labour is over £27 million. This dwarfs any support offered through ‘Short Money’.
“The Conservative finances are so vastly stronger than Labour’s that we could be looking at a prolonged period of financial imbalance between the parties that persists into the next election.”
Professor Colin Green, from the Norwegian University of Science and TechnologyLink opens in a new window, said “This growth in political donations, from a concentration of large individual donors, indicates how unelected private individuals are in a position to wield substantial influence over the UK’s political process.
“Traditionally, UK donations are seen as relatively unimportant when compared to the US. But the significant increase in party donations we see over the last 20 years suggests they are having a very real impact on how the UK democratic process works.”
- Read the paper: Draca, M., Green, C. and Homroy, S. (2022) Financing UK Democracy: A Stocktake of 20 Years of Political Donations Disclosure. CAGE working paper no. 642Link opens in a new window
- Read a blog by co-author Professor Colin Green Financing UK Democracy: Are we heading for a crisis? Link opens in a new window