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Sensemaker: Big spenders, little footprints

Sensemaker: Big spenders, little footprints

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Bolsonaro supporters stormed Brazil’s congress, presidential palace and supreme court (more below).
  • Israel’s far-right minister Itamar Ben-Gvir told police to remove the Palestinian flag from public spaces.
  • Cornwall prepared to host the UK’s first rocket launch (more below). 

Big spenders, little footprints

The broad outlines of British political donations are well-known. Trade unions fund Labour and big business funds the Tories. It’s more complicated than that, of course – parties and MPs get donations from individuals as well – but the register of members’ interests requires them all to be declared.

So what? It’s much more complicated than that, as the Westminster Accounts reveal:

  • Declarations are not necessarily the same thing as transparency.
  • For every donor who’s a household name there are dozens who aren’t.
  • Donors don’t have to disclose the source of their funds, nor what they may ask for in return.

The result is a system of disclosure in principle with acres of unanswered questions in practice. 

By the numbers:

£17.2 million – total value of donations to individual MPs this parliament. 

£127.8 million – additional donations to political parties.

£242,000 – value of gifts to MPs from Qatar this parliament despite rules prohibiting them from accepting foreign donations.

£191,000 –  donations to Jeremy Corbyn from JBC Defence Ltd, a vehicle used to cover the former Labour leader’s legal costs in a libel action that was eventually settled out of court.

Top donors to Members of Parliament, by total value*

*Includes cash donations, non-cash donations, gifts and other benefits-in-kind.

Top Members of Parliament, by total secondary earnings

Includes cash donations, non-cash donations, gifts and other benefits-in-kind.

The JBC Defence donations are the sixth largest in the league table of donations to individual MPs by source, only two places below the Qatari foreign ministry. But donations to parties are an order of magnitude larger and dominated by those to the Conservatives.

Tories in clover. The Conservative Party not only receives 50 per cent more in donations (£76 million) than all the other parties combined (£51.4 million). It can also claim a broader base of donors. It has more than twice as many of them (737) as all the other parties (352). Some, like Lubov Chernukhin, the Russian-born banker (£841,000 this parliament), are well-known to students of UK party funding. But 12 other individuals without her name recognition have given more.

Workers united. Labour’s five biggest donors are all unions, accounting for 71 per cent of all gifts to the party by value compared with 15 per cent for the Conservatives’ top five. The sixth biggest Labour donor is the Cooperative Group, which runs the supermarket chain. The seventh: Francesca Perrin, whose money also comes from groceries; her father is Lord Sainsbury.

Over on aisle 10. Speaking of Lord Sainsbury, his $8 million this parliament to the Liberal Democrats is like Jupiter to the solar system. It accounts for more than half the party’s total funding and is the second-biggest donation in all of UK politics after the Unite union’s £8.8 million to Labour.

Not all dependencies are so transparent. Labour and the Tories have both taken money from companies almost no one, including most MPs, has ever heard of. 

For example…

MPM Connect. Near the top of the donor list is a company with no internet presence that funds three Labour MPs. MPM Connect is owned by two low-profile millionaires, Peter Hearn and Simon Murphy. 

MPM started donating to these MPs – Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper and Wes Streeting – in January 2020, when Hearn appears to have switched from donating in his name to that of MPM. Since then it has given nearly £330,000. But it’s very difficult to tell what MPM does – apart from donating to Labour MPs. 

The company’s accounts offer very few clues as to what the company does, although they note that for the year ending December 2021, “the number of employees during the year was NIL”. Its head office is a semi-detached house in Broxbourne in Hertfordshire. 

There is nothing wrong with this. But the shift from named individual to company puts a barrier between the public and the source of funds. Read more.

IX Wireless. Yesterday, residents of Blackburn went on a protest against IX Wireless, which they say has been putting up 15-metre 5G phone masts without permission. One resident we spoke to claims he has been “bullied” and “intimidated” over the positioning of a mast. The residents have repeatedly asked their MP, Chris Green, to step in. But they’ve heard nothing back. 

Neither have we. We don’t know what Green thinks about IX Wireless, but we do know he received £5,000 from the company last year. He’s one of several Conservative MPs and members of the Northern Research Group on its donations list. IX Wireless has given nearly £150,000 in all, making it a top-15 donor even though not all of the recipients knew at first where the money had come from.

Christian Wakeford, who defected early last year to Labour, had received £3,500 from IX Wireless when a Tory. He told Tortoise: “The first I ever heard of IX Wireless is when I was told ‘this is something you need to put on the register of interests for compliance purposes’ – that was all I ever heard of them.” 

In hindsight, he says, he should have asked more questions. But when we asked those questions no one from the company replied. When we visited the offices, they were padlocked and appeared virtually derelict. Read more.


Harry’s sad kingdom of the self-righteous

Matthew d’Ancona

The prince who had so much to offer has succumbed to the hypermodern cult of unsullied rectitude and victimhood. His compulsive oversharing helps nobody, least of all himself


Ma bows out

China’s best-known tech billionaire is relinquishing control of the fintech firm he tried and failed to float three years ago. Jack Ma’s stake in Alipay will fall from more than 50 per cent to about 6. This could mean he’s conceding defeat in a long-running fight with Xi Jinping for the freedom to run his businesses as he pleases, which would augur ill for the limping Chinese economy. Or, per Reuters, it could bookend Xi’s communistic attempts to spoil the tech party, marking the moment he accepts he can’t smother China’s growth engines if he wants growth. The markets seem to think the latter. Shares in Alibaba – Ma’s original e-commerce behemoth – are up this morning and while his voting stake in Alipay will shrink, his financial stake won’t. He’s still worth $33 billion. Chinese tech may be due an upswing.


Cape Cornwall

The only addition to the usual 747 cockpit hardware in Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl is a red button. All being well, RAF Squadron Leader Mathew Stannard will press it later today, releasing the first orbital rocket ever launched in Europe. It will detach from the port wing of Cosmic Girl 35,000 feet over the Atlantic, soar to low earth orbit and deploy a cluster of small satellites. Virgin Orbit has done all this before over the Pacific, several times, but the UK has only put a satellite into orbit once before, in 1971, from Australia. Carrying a rocket into the upper atmosphere before igniting its engines radically cuts the amount of fuel it needs to get to orbit, but requires three launch control systems (ground, plane, rocket) rather than one.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

French pensions

In 2020, Emmanuel Macron put proposed pension reforms on ice as the country battled Covid-19. Tomorrow, his government will revive the plans, with Elisabeth Borne, the prime minister, setting out how they will make the French work longer, most likely raising the retirement age to 64 or 65 from 62 currently. The reasoning: France has one of the lowest retirement ages in the industrialised world and spends more than most on pensions. The sweeteners: an increase in the minimum pension and exemptions for older workers with physically demanding jobs. The backlash: leftwing and far-right parties will fight reform and union opposition is stronger now than in 2020 as people face a cost of living crisis. Polls show about 70 per cent of the public oppose raising the retirement age. To watch: the yellow vest movement held a march in Paris on Saturday. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

No women, more cry

Two-thirds of Afghans – around 28 million people – will rely on international aid this year, according to the United Nations. More than six million face famine-like levels of food insecurity. But humanitarian work across the country has been “paralysed” by a Taliban ban, announced two weeks ago, on women working for non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In response, dozens of NGOs and aid agencies have suspended operations, saying they cannot effectively reach those in need without female staff. Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, landed in Kabul yesterday to talk to Taliban leaders; the UN’s lead humanitarian coordinator is also due in the capital. Unless the ban is reversed, billions of dollars in aid is at risk. And the women of Afghanistan slide further into darkness.  


Brazil’s January 6th

Apart from the sea of yellow and green shirts, the scenes from the Brazilian capital were horribly familiar. Thousands of supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro stormed the country’s Congress building, Supreme Court and presidential palace last night, filming themselves in the country’s centres of power, some setting fires and smashing windows. Observers had warned for months about the risk of a copycat 6 January insurrection (Bolsonaro spent years claiming, without evidence, that Brazil’s electoral system was rigged). Which raises the question: how did this happen? President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva accused local security forces of “incompetence, bad faith or malice” and declared a federal intervention. The local governor has been suspended for 90 days; hundreds have been arrested. Bolsonaro denied that he had “triggered” the protests. Lula’s inauguration goal of uniting Brazil looks very far away. 

The week ahead


09/01 – UK’s first orbital rocket launch due to launch from Cornwall Airport Newquay; NASUWT teaching union closes strike ballot of members in England and Wales; BMA’s junior doctors’ strike ballot opens, 10/01 – Office for National Statistics releases interactive maps to explore 2021 census data in England and Wales; Prince Harry’s autobiography Spare officially released, 11/01 – Ambulance staff belonging to GMB union go on strike; NAHT, the headteachers’ union, closes strike ballot, 12/01 – NHS England publishes A&E waiting time and emergency admissions data; rail strikes by members of TSSA union on London’s Elizabeth Line, 13/01 – National Education Union closes strike ballot among 300,000 teachers and support staff in England and Wales; ONS publishes monthly GDP estimates


09/01 – Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador hosts North American leaders’ summit with US and Canada, 10/01 – 80th Golden Globe Awards take place in Los Angeles, 11/01 – FTX bankruptcy hearing, 12/01 – US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releases annual climate change report, 13/01 – Czech Republic presidential election; Donald Trump’s property company Trump Organization due to be sentenced after tax fraud conviction; Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida meets Joe Biden at the White House, 14/01 – Orthodox New Year

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Catherine Neilan

Additional reporting Giles Whittell and Jessica Winch

Photographs Getty Images