One of the common arguments by the supporters of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill is that it will prevent the UK equivalent of the Koch Brothers from being able to buy the political process for their own nefarious ends.
So it is with good timing that Paul Sykes has re-emerged, promising to do “whatever it takes” to get UKIP to become the largest UK political party in the European Parliament after the elections next year.
Paul Sykes, for those with short memories, was a Conservative donor who switched sides in the early noughties. The billboard campaign he funded in 2004 had a direct effect on the result, in which UKIP leapt from 3 MEPs to 12. Even without his intervention, it was looking distinctly possible that UKIP could become the largest party in 2014, with the Tories’ popularity being dented due to being in government, and the BNP collapsing. Now it is looking like a very real prospect indeed.
This sort of intervention by a Eurosceptic millionaire is hardly a new thing in British politics; it’s been an ongoing saga since the Maastricht debate shot Europe up the political agenda 20 years ago. And while it’s true that they have occasionally dipped their toes into non-party campaigning with causes such as the disastrous (in terms of its impact compared to the amount of money that was reportedly spent on it) IWantAReferendum.com, they have predominantly sought to exert their influence via political parties rather than pressure groups.
All of which makes shroud-waving about what might happen when “Koch UK land here” seem rather odd; their tanks are already on our lawn. The policy solution is of course to limit what individual’s can donate to political parties, an issue which the coalition paid lip service to but have now walked away from even after we saw progress made on alternative, revenue-neutral funding mechanisms and the Labour Party shifted ground significantly in terms of their own trade union-led opposition to the idea.
Gratifyingly the government have now – for a short period at least – agreed to pause the legislative process, to allow more time for ministers to listen to the concerns of civic society organisations. We can thank organisations such as 38 Degrees for helping to win that respite. Hopefully it will lead to meaningful engagement and at least some of the scrutiny that the bill should have got before being read in parliament. Optimistically, it might even lead to a more robust legislative framework to regulate the role third parties can play in elections. But be under no illusion whatsoever that it will do a thing to remove the dominance millionaires have over the UK political system.