Politics for sale: analysing twenty-one years of UK political donations

14th May 2024

This report provides unprecedented analysis of political donations in the UK over a twenty-one year period. It draws on a newly constructed dataset that combines the official data on political donations published by the Electoral Commission with data from Companies House, Wikidata and the Parliamentary API data.

Key findings:

• Donations closely align with political power. Over twenty years, the Conservative Party received over 40% of all political donations (totalling over £465 million, excluding public funds).

• Overall, the two major parties remain closely associated with business and workers respectively, with the Conservative Party receiving the vast majority of donations from companies and almost all trade union donations going to the Labour Party.

• There was a decline in donations from companies and wealthy individuals to Labour during the years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, while the 2017 and 2019 elections saw significant peaks in Tory and Liberal Democrat donations, respectively.

• Donors are overwhelmingly ‘ideological’ rather than ‘pragmatic’, generally remaining loyal to one political party. However, some donor types, notably large companies and non-profit organisations, are less partisan.

• Large companies are more likely to donate compared to businesses in general, but still comprise only a small proportion (8.8%) of business donations overall. It is also notable that the majority (52%) of these big business donations come from large private companies (often controlled by billionaires), and only 12% from public limited companies.

• Companies provide a higher proportion of non-cash donations than other donors. This includes the secondment of staff, as has been routinely undertaken by the ‘Big Four’ accounting firms.

• The business sector that has donated the most is construction and real estate, followed by finance. In the case of the former, this broadly reflects the economic size of the sector, but in the case of finance the volume of donations is even greater than you would expect given its size (as measured by GVA).

• There is a higher concentration of business donors in industries that are highly regulated. These donors may have a particular interest in engaging with politicians in order to influence policy-making that could restrict their activities. The five industrial sectors with the highest proportion of donor companies are: (1) mining, oil and gas, (2) gambling, (3) food and beverages, (4) utilities, and (5) finance, investments & insurance.

Authors

Tom Mills, Narzanin Massoumi, George Richardson, Will Stronge, Lukas Kikuchi, Sonia Balagopalan.

The authors would also like to thank Killian Mullan and Gary Fooks who participated in the hackathon and contributed towards some initial analysis of the data.

Acknowledgments

The authors gratefully acknowledge £7,615 from the Aston University Pump Priming Fund to support the initial ‘hackathon’ and the production of this report.