Editor’s Note – In this article, written by Michael, an analysis of the influential role that ‘dark money’ can play in modern day politics, especially here in the UK and US, is made. Money fuels the economy, but to what extent does it fuel politics?
The Role of Dark Money in Politics
We are all, to some extent, afraid of the dark. Whether it stems from fear of imaginary monsters, to a fear of criminals lurking in the shadows ready to deprive you of your dearly earned possessions, or even your life, we all have our own reasons to fear the dark. We humans as a species have feared the dark for millennia, stretching back to the dawn of man when we discovered fire, in order to warm us, and of course, fend off the darkness of the encroaching night. It is clear to say, that the word itself, dark, has deeply negative connotations.
So what is “Dark money”? From the title, you can guess it is no benevolent thing, and it is not. It is one of, in my opinion, the most severe threats to democracy as we know it and it is not a problem faced only in the USA but here in Britain as well. Dark money refers to money that is given by undisclosed donors to non-profit political organisations which is then spent on trying to influence your vote (that is, if you can vote). Essentially, it’s money given by anonymous donors who seek to buy the election. People use dark money to buy the election; and they sometimes succeed.
The US is probably one of the most notorious examples of dark money influencing politics. Wealthy billionaires or corporations fund vast organisations known as SuperPACs (PAC standing for Political Action Committee. They can’t officially coordinate with the campaign of any candidate, but it’s not really too hard to write and pay to air ads that favour of them/attack their opponent) and 501(c) groups (non-profit, politically active groups who don’t have to disclose their donors or pay taxes, as long as their primary activity isn’t politics. In practise, this means less than 50% total expenditure on politics) who pay for ads, staff, voter database analysis, door-to-door knocking, etc. for candidates that the shadowy donors back. The mechanics of dark money are complex, but the basics boil down to this (in the US at least). 501 (c) groups receive an anonymous donation. Now, the group must adhere to spending below the limit of 49.9% of their total budget on political activities. What happens is that multiple 501 (c) groups coordinate money transfers between one another, inflating their expenditures, and thus allowing them to spend more than the limit on political activity. This network of organisations obscures both the organisations’ budget, but also helps obscure who the original donor was. A SuperPAC can spend any amount it wants on politics, but must, however, disclose their donors. The true genius comes in when 501 (c) groups donate the money they received to the SuperPAC, thus the SuperPAC can spend all this clean, legal money that the 501 (c)s can’t, whilst the 501 (c) is listed as the donor to the SuperPAC, thus anonymising the true donor.
This is vastly different to how the dark money situation in the UK works, and is also merely a basic overview (I have left out vast chunks of the mechanisms), but is an, in my opinion, an interesting insight into the sort of mechanics and loopholes dark money exploits, and gives an idea of what dark money involves. Whilst the dark money situation in the US is far worse than in the UK; we have electoral agents through which all money spent by the candidate is monitored, and unlike the US post Buckley v. Valeo, there is a limit on how much each candidate can spend; £7150, plus 5p for every registered voter in the borough, or 7p in a county. We aren’t however, immune from the influence of dark money in the UK.
Under the Political Parties, Elections, and Referendums Act of 2000, all donations £7,500+ must be reported (lump sum or multiple totalling to), or £1500+ if from a source reported prior in the same year. This act (PPERA) also prohibits donations from “impermissible sources”, or sources that are unknown. These legal requirements of disclosing publically who donated the money, and also knowing who donated the money, don’t apply to Northern Ireland. You may ask yourself why, and the reason is simple; terrorism. During the period of civil unrest known as the Troubles in NI, there was intense domestic terrorism there. Parliament decided that, in the interests of safety, political parties in Northern Ireland don’t need to disclose publically who gave them a donation, in order to protect the donor, who could become a target for the IRA or UFF as a result of their donation.
This exists for good reason; to protect lives and allow for freedom of expression whilst maintaining one’s freedom from fear. The DUP, who you may have heard of, have bastardised the spirit of this provision, and allowed the entry of dark money. In 2016, the DUP, a pro-Brexit party, decided to buy four pages of advertisements in the Metro newspaper, promoting Brexit and the Leave campaign, a move totalling £282,000. It would be arguable that this was perfectly fine, and the DUP were entitled to buy the ad, but for the fact that the Metro doesn’t publish in Northern Ireland. This begs the question-why did the DUP buy the ad in the first place? It clearly had no benefit to the DUP, as no one who could vote for the DUP would read the ads. For many the answer is simple; through the DUP, unknown, anonymous donors could funnel vast sums of money to press for a Leave result, without fear of being publically disclosed. This is more than speculation however; we know where the £282,000 came from; a DUP MP admitted the ad was funded by a £425,000 donation from a croup known as the Constitutional Research Council, headed by a Scottish business man, Richard Cook. Where the CRC got their money from is not public knowledge, and there has been much baseless speculation in regards to its origin.
It doesn’t really matter where the money came from, and really who paid for it. It probably didn’t even affect the referendum result-far more important factors came into play there, such as misinformation from the Leave campaign, anger at the establishment, the immigration debate, etc. What really makes me worry is that it sets a dangerous precedent; this time, it may have not affected us much, and was a relatively meagre sum compared to how much was spent in total by both sides (£32 million+), but it potentially could lead to the encouragement of more dark money flowing into our elections in the future. This was not the sole example of dark money in UK politics; Robert Mercer’s firm Cambridge Analytica was alleged by some to have also tried to influence the Brexit vote, and the now dissolved charity Atlantic Bridge are both other examples of dark money in UK politics.
Ultimately, we should prevent such things from happening here, and rein in unlimited, anonymous political spending. Some argue that this would be a violation of free speech; I would argue that using your financial power to speak louder than others drowns out those who don’t have the resources to do so, and violates the free speech of the many. Going back to the US, engraved on the US Supreme Court building is the motto “Equal justice under law”. Here, we must ensure everyone has a free, but equal, voice. Democracy is the rule of the people. In a world where dark money is allowed free reign, we can no longer be sure whether or not we are a democracy anymore, or are a mere plutocracy.