A story of the General Election which has, so far, been under-discussed is the role played by third party campaigners. That is, individuals or groups who are separate from the political parties but are still campaigning for or against a party or candidate.
Third parties have always been around – and rightly so. You shouldn’t have to be in a political party to have a voice in our democracy, and for obvious reasons all sorts of people wish to communicate to their fellow voters how one party or another will affect their lifestyles, hobbies, businesses, beliefs and so on.
There are, though, some concerns that have emerged about the role of third parties in the recent General Election. Not a single Conservative that I’ve spoken to seeks to blame these issues for the disappointing result. They place that honour rather closer to home. But a variety of senior and grassroots figures have told me they are worried at the emergence of three particular trends, and what they might mean for the future.
The first is blunt. Labour had the backing of vastly more third party campaigners and organisations than the Conservatives. From fox hunting to ivory to food banks to school funding, on a myriad of issues there were well-funded, well-organised groups and individuals pushing out effectively pro-Labour messages to millions of people. Much of this went unnoticed in CCHQ, which helps to explain why the result came as such a shock – as one Tory source put it to me, “a red tide washed over us”. Not only did the Conservative campaign largely not see the impact coming, it seems that in many cases Labour didn’t see it coming either.
By contrast, where were the equivalent groups backing the Conservatives? There’s Vote-OK, the group that wants the hunting ban repealed. There were various Jewish community groups that were understandably deeply concerned about some of the poisonous views harboured by the modern Labour Party. And there wasn’t much else. Sure, there are quite a few outfits on the centre right, but rightly or wrongly many of them are occupied in opposing various of the Government’s policies, and they tend by disposition to be less likely to obediently fall into line than some of their left-wing counterparts.
Such a severe imbalance is a scandal. Not that it’s somehow devious or wrong of the left to set up or woo such groups, but it’s a scandal that the right has neglected to do much of either in recent years. Particularly when our movement is already outgunned in terms of troops on the ground, and lacks the equivalent of union backing, it ought to be going out of its way to find a route to rebalance the fight.
The second trend is the careful exploitation of loopholes in the law on donations. Take, for example, the question of how some of these campaigns are funded. The rise of crowdfunding, through online platforms like GoFundMe, makes it easier than ever before for a campaign to receive money from large numbers of people remotely. Understandably, campaigners are making use of this technology. However, it’s also, by definition, easily accessible for would-be donors overseas.
Ordinarily, such donations aren’t allowed, but as BrexitCentral reported back in April, the Electoral Commission’s rules state that donations under £500 don’t count as a fully regulated donation and therefore:
“…anybody who donates under £500…can remain anonymous to the public, does not need to be registered to vote in the UK or even be a British citizen.”
BrexitCentral’s example of this particular loophole in action was Gina Millers ‘Best for Britain’ campaign, which was crowdfunding to back candidates who promised to open the door to reversing Brexit. The site reported that Miller’s pitch for money included the rule that “for electoral reasons, we need to cap individual donations at £499”. Doing so isn’t illegal, but that rule certainly could appear to be carefully targeted at avoiding greater degrees of transparency and scrutiny.
The question raised by concerned observers, therefore, is not just about the identity of Miller’s donors, but wider: how many other third party campaigns were making use of this loophole, and how many donors might have channeled how much money through it?
The multiplicity of anti-Tory campaigns that have sprung up offers new opportunities of scale to elaborate on this loophole, too, well beyond that Miller example. If you gave more than £500 to one group or to the Labour Party, your donation would be subject to the various regulations on permissibility. Were you to give £499 to several different groups, however, you could donate far more than that threshold without any such restrictions, aiding the broad cause for or against particular parties without having to be a legally permissible donor.
What’s more, if you give over £7,500 to a single party or organisation then your identity and your donation becomes public, recorded with and reported by the Electoral Commission. Donate £499 to 16 like-minded but distinct organisations, however, and you can give more than the threshold for a publicly declarable donation but do so in total anonymity, with no-one even having to check if you’re a legitimate donor to the British political process in the first place. The fact that any organisation that spends less than £10,000 doesn’t have to register as a third party campaign at all, and therefore doesn’t have to declare a thing, could offer further opportunities.
Once, when third party campaigns were relatively rare, and donating normally involved face to face contact and writing cheques, these issues could reasonably have been dismissed as technically possible but practically unlikely. Now, however, technology has made them easily exploitable, the boom in third parties has made them more practicable, and there is some evidence that some loopholes are indeed being used.
Is everyone really a ‘third party’?
By definition, third party campaigners are meant to be independent of the political parties. They might like the ideas of one or loathe the ideas of another, as is their right, but the point is they are meant to be functionally, strategically and operationally independent of them.
Some of those I have spoken to about this issue have expressed concerns that there might be some nominal third parties that are closely co-ordinating their activities with a party of which they are meant to be independent. If that was happening, it could mean that any party doing so gained the benefit of such organisations operating as an arm of itself, while keeping their funding and spending off its books. Combine that possibility with the above questions about permissible donors, and people start to ask predictable questions about how easy it might be to, in effect, donate to a party’s campaign without any oversight or transparency at all.
There’s no easy solution to all this, particularly without risking unintended negative consequences. You can’t ban like-minded people from talking to one another. And there will inevitably always be a grey area where some people might be involved in a third party campaign and in the political party that it is sympathetic towards. But it’s still reasonable to wonder if every ‘independent’ third party group is really doing what it says on the tin, and whether all the money in our politics is really being contributed by legitimate donors.