Our political system is easily influenced by wealthy donors or hostile powers. The government seems
unwilling to defend it
Vladimir Putin (centre) and Boris Johnson (right). ‘When the rules say it’s fine for the wife of Putin’s former finance minister to pay £45,000 to play tennis with Johnson, don’t be surprised when the public loses faith in politics.’
The recent Russia report paints a grim picture of British democracy. Kremlin disinformation targeting our elections, a London laundromat cleaning dirty money, Russian elites buying their wayinto the British establishment.The Russia report points to wilful negligence by the British governmentDominic GrieveRead more
The 50-page dossier sparked questions about why successive Conservative governments repeatedly ignored evidence of Kremlin inference. Newspapers splashed with stories about leading Tories accepting donations from wealthy Russians with connections deep into Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. (As if we didn’t know this already.)
But buried in the middle of the intelligence and security committee’s reluctantly released report are two paragraphs that should be even more concerning. They reveal that nobody is in charge of protecting British democracy. Never mind Putin and Russia, it appears anyone with a wad of cash and a vested interest can buy access to our political process.
The parliamentarians don’t mince their words about the scale of the problem. Defending the UK’s democratic processes, the report says, is “something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation recognising itself as having an overall lead”.
It gets worse. Government agencies nominally charged with ensuring the integrity of our political and electoral system are not in a position to “tackle a major hostile state threat to our democracy”.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – responsible for tackling a torrent of political disinformation online – “is a small Whitehall policy department”. The Electoral Commission is “an arm’s length body”, embattled and under-resourced.
None of this was news to me. I have spent the last year writing a book about how anonymous money and undisclosed lobbying has warped British democracy. In my research I saw how Conservative party donors were able to sidestep transparency requirements to funnel hundreds of thousands of pounds into key Labour “red wall” seats during the 2019 general election. But I was still surprised to see a report bearing parliament’s portcullis insignia admit these failings admitted so bluntly.
It’s easy to fixate on potential Russian influence operations, but the reality is that our political system is ripe for abuse from all corners. The UK’s approach to regulating democracy is light touch to the point of invisibility. In the US, you can go to prison for breaking electoral law. (Just ask Michael Cohen.) The maximum fine our Electoral Commission can impose is £20,000, barely enough for a table at a Conservative party fundraiser. The Tories, incidentally, last year opposed strengthening the elections regulator so it could impose bigger fines.
In Britain, the laws that govern our politics are like taxes: to be paid only by those who don’t have the means to the bend the rules. Dominic Cummings – whose Vote Leave campaign broke the law before the Brexit referendum – repeatedly refused to appear before a DCMS select committee enquiry into “fake news”. He was still made a senior adviser by Boris Johnson.
Party funding is a permanent scandal waiting to happen. When the rules say it’s fine for the wife of a former finance minister in Putin’s government to pay at least £45,000 to play tennis with Johnson – as Lubov Chernukhin did this year – don’t be surprised when the public loses faith in politics. (It’s hardly a coincidence that dissatisfaction with democracy is highest in the UK and the US, two countries where money is a major feature of political life.)
On paper, Britain has a lobbying register to keep tabs on who is influencing our politicians. But the transparency requirements are so weak that corporate lobbyists can easily evade disclosure. There are almost no rules at all around online campaigning. The list goes on and on.
The Russia report should be a clarion call, a final warning about the degraded state of British democracy. As the report says: “Protecting our democratic discourse and processes from hostile interference is a central responsibility of government, and should be a ministerial priority.” Which is true. Defending democracy should be a priority for Johnson’s administration – but it clearly isn’t.
At almost the exact same time as the report was being released, the Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith was telling parliament that consolidation of Britain’s labyrinthine and outdated electoral laws beyond amending the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was “not a priority” for the government.
Johnson went even further, declaring that the imbroglio over the Russia report was a plot by “Islington remainers”. But it’s not. British democracy is indeed badly compromised. That should be a worry to us all, not just Russia hawks or those who would like to reverse the 2016 Brexit result.
Even more concerning, however, is politicians’ lack of appetite for reform. Senior government figures – such as Tobias Ellwood – have broken ranks to call for action on potential Russia interference, but there has been little talk of tackling the failings closer to home.
Politicians, of course, have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. As the Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, chair of a parliamentary working group on electoral reform, told me: “Political parties would rather stay with the broken system we have currently because they know how to maximise their advantage within it.”
The Russia report has revealed the ugly state of British democracy. It’s a system that is open to abuse again and again. But having won power on the back of a broken system, Johnson and his Vote Leave entourage within the Tory party would rather tilt at windmills than fix it.
- Peter Geoghegan’s latest book Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics is published 6 August by Head of Zeus