So many problems worrying the Electoral Reform Society …

Why it’s time to shine a light on ‘dark ads’ online:

In these divided times, a new consensus is emerging around our broken election laws:

Our democracy faces many threats – but the government has picked the wrong priority:

Campaign regulation is needed now before all trust is gone:

Urgent action needed on political advertising

“Following a request by the Culture Media and Sport committee, Facebook released the adverts Vote Leave ran during the EU referendum.

The series of adverts targeted specific Facebook users – but in many it was not clear who had paid for them.

We know who sends us leaflets during elections – we should know who’s paying for online adverts too.

Openness and transparency should be the standard during election and referendum campaigns, not the exception.

Will you sign our petition for online imprints and to release all the official adverts from the EU referendum?”

Sign the petition:

Former MPs cannot be forced to repay debts to the taxpayer

“OUTRAGE erupted last night as parliamentary watchdogs revealed they have written off £35,000 of debt owed by MPs to the taxpayer.

The Sun can reveal that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) has given up chasing expenses owed by 15 MPs who lost their seats in last year’s General Election – because of the legal costs in chasing them. …

The £35,000 of debt was 12 times as much as MPs owed the previous year.
In 2016/17 a total of £4,000 of debt owed by 10 MPs was written off. MPs owe the money from when they used their Parliament-issued credit card to claim personal or political purposes – such as hotels in London or for bills that fall outside strict spending rules. …

Ipsa can recover the money from their salary if MPs fail to repay the debt but that becomes harder after MPs are booted out by voters.

An Ipsa source said: “We’re no longer able to recover those costs and the cost of legal action doesn’t make it viable.”

Ipsa said it would only name and shame the former MPs in November.

But campaigners said it was scandalous that while ordinary Brits are harassed and put in prison for debt and unpaid taxes, MPs get away scot-free.”

“Revealed: Tory donors who paid £7m to socialise with Theresa May”

Owl says: hedge funds expect to make squillions from Brexit.k

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s business partner, Brexit backers and wife of Putin minister among benefactor

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s business partner, a string of Brexit backers and the wife of a former senior minister to President Putin are among the Conservative donors who have paid more than £7m to socialise with Theresa May since the general election.

Eighty-one party benefactors have paid a total of £7.4m to the Conservative party for access to the prime minister at dinners, post-prime minister’s questions’ lunches and drinks receptions since July 2017, records show.

Party insiders say the large amount raised over just nine months from a single revenue stream is evidence that the Tories are aiming to be “election ready” for the autumn.

At least 10 of the donors, who joined the Leader’s Group for £50,000 a head, are supporters of a hard Brexit.

Dominic Johnson, who attended two of the group’s events in 2017, is the co-founder of Somerset Capital Management – an investment firm set up with Rees-Mogg, a hard Brexiter and the chairman of the European Research Group [ERG].

Somerset was recently reported to be warning its clients about “considerable uncertainty” as a result of Brexit, and set up a fund in Ireland, which benefits from EU financial passporting rights.

Sir Michael Hintze, the hedge fund billionaire who gave £100,000 to Vote Leave, is a familiar figure in Conservative circles and attended at least one dinner in 2017 with the prime minister, sources said.

Hardy McLain, a retired US hedge fund manager living in London, attended events in 2017 and 2018. He previously donated £20,000 to the Vote Leave campaign.

It is the first time since July 2017 that any details of dinner guests of May’s Leader’s Group have emerged. Their identities have been quietly released by the Conservatives this week.

Receiving campaign donations is a routine activity for politicians. But each gift carries with it a potential conflict of interest if the prime minister’s policies appear to benefit those who made the donations.

Edmund Truell, who attended dinners in 2017 and 2018, owns a Swiss-listed private equity business called Disruptive Capital, whose mission statement is to “exploit market uncertainty” to generate returns.

Only two women are among the Leader’s Group donors disclosed in the documents.

Lubov Chernukhin, whose husband, Vladimir, was the deputy finance minister of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was given access to the prime minister between last July and September. She has given £626,500 to the Tories since 2012, including £160,000 to play tennis with Boris Johnson and £30,000 to dine with the defence secretary, Gavin Williamson.

Alisa Swidler, a US philanthropist and friend of Bill Clinton who has given £336,686 to the party, also attended an event with May.

The party’s chief executive, the mining tycoon Sir Mick Davis, told a meeting of donors in September that the party needed to raise an additional £6m through the parliamentary cycle if it was to win the next general election.

The party spent £18.5m on last year’s election, when the Conservatives lost their working majority, compared with £11m by Labour. Sources told the Guardian the Tories are aiming for a 40% annual increase in the party’s budget – money that will be spent on up to 100 local campaign co-ordinators.

Records show that Lord Ashcroft, the former Conservative party treasurer who gave millions to the party under William Hague’s leadership but stopped donating during Cameron’s premiership, appears to be back in the fold and is a member of May’s leader’s Group. He was joined by the former government adviser and investor in payday loans, Adrian Beecroft.

May appears to bring cabinet members to each event. She was joined by Amber Rudd and the party chairman, Brandon Lewis, at events between the election and the end of September; the chancellor, Philip Hammond, and Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, accompanied her to Leader’s Group meetings in the autumn; between January and April this year, May was joined by Johnson, Michael Gove, Liam Fox and four other cabinet ministers.

The Conservatives had not updated details of donors who attended events since July 2017. Cameron pledged to release donors’ data following an outcry over the Leader’s Group dinners and whether they were allowing the rich and powerful to buy access to the cabinet.

The documents were spotted this week by campaigners for a second referendum on membership of the EU. Chris Bryant, the MP for Rhondda and supporter of the People’s Vote campaign, said: “People will rightly be angry to see the government listen to Brexit donors in return for donations to the Tory party while denying the British public a vote on their deal.”

“Dark money lurks at the heart of our political crisis”

“Democracy is threatened by organisations such the Institute of Economic Affairs that refuse to reveal who funds them.

A mere two millennia after Roman politicians paid mobs to riot on their behalf, we are beginning to understand the role of dark money in politics, and its perennial threat to democracy. Dark money is cash whose source is not made public, and which is spent to change political outcomes. The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, unearthed by Carole Cadwalladr, and the mysterious funds channelled through Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party to the leave campaign in England and Scotland have helped to bring the concept to public attention. But these examples hint at a much wider problem. Dark money can be seen as the underlying corruption from which our immediate crises emerge: the collapse of public trust in politics, the rise of a demagogic anti-politics, and assaults on the living world, public health and civic society. Democracy is meaningless without transparency.

The techniques now being used to throw elections and referendums were developed by the tobacco industry, and refined by biotechnology, fossil fuel and junk food companies. Some of us have spent years exposing the fake grassroots campaigns they established, the false identities and bogus scientific controversies they created, and the way in which media outlets have been played by them. Our warnings went unheeded, while the ultra-rich learned how to buy the political system.

The problem is exemplified, in my view, by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). In the latest reshuffle, two ministers with close links to the institute, Dominic Raab and Matthew Hancock, have been promoted to the frontbench, responsible for issues that obsess the IEA: Brexit and the NHS. Raab credits the IEA with supporting him “in waging the war of ideas”. Hancock, in his former role as cabinet office minister, notoriously ruled that charities receiving public funds should not be allowed to lobby the government. His department credited the IEA with the research that prompted the policy. This rule, in effect, granted a monopoly on lobbying to groups such as the IEA, which receive their money only from private sources. Hancock has received a total of £32,000 in political donations from the IEA’s chairman, Neil Record.

The IEA has lobbied consistently for a hard Brexit. A report it published on Monday as an alternative to Theresa May’s white paper calls for Brexit to be used to tear down the rules protecting agency workers, to deregulate finance, annul the rules on hazardous chemicals and weaken food labelling laws. Darren Grimes, who was fined by the Electoral Commission on Tuesday for spending offences during the leave campaign, now works as the IEA’s digital manager.

So what is this organisation, and on whose behalf does it speak? If only we knew. It is rated by the accountability group Transparify as “highly opaque”. All that distinguishes organisations such as the IEA from public relations companies such as Burson-Marsteller is that we don’t know who it is working for. The only hard information we have is that, for many years, it has been funded by British American Tobacco (BAT), Japan Tobacco International, Imperial Tobacco and Philip Morris International. When this funding was exposed, the IEA claimed that its campaigns against tobacco regulation were unrelated to the money it had received. Recently, it has been repeatedly dissing the NHS, which it wants to privatise; campaigning against controls on junk food; attacking trade unions; and defending zero-hour contracts, unpaid internships and tax havens. Its staff appear on the BBC promoting these positions, often several times a week. But never do interviewers ask the basic democratic questions: who funds you, and do they have a financial interest in these topics? …

While dark money has been used to influence elections, the role of groups such as the IEA is to reach much deeper into political life. As its current director, Mark Littlewood, explains, “We want to totally reframe the debate about the proper role of the state and civil society in our country … Our true mission is to change the climate of opinion.”

Astonishingly, the IEA is registered as an educational charity, with the official purpose of helping “the general public/mankind”. As a result it is exempted from the kind of taxes about which it complains so bitterly. Charity Commission rules state that “an organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political”. How much more political can you get? In what sense is ripping down public protections and attacking the rights of workers charitable? Surely no organisation should be registered as a charity unless any funds it receives above a certain threshold (say £1,000) are declared.

The Charity Commission announced last week that it has decided to examine the role of the IEA, to see whether it has broken its rules. I don’t hold out much hope. In response to a complaint by Andrew Purkis, a former member of the Charity Commission’s board, its head of regulatory compliance, Anthony Blake, claimed that the IEA provides a “relatively uncontroversial perspective accepted by informed opinion”. If he sees hard Brexit, privatising the NHS and defending tax havens as uncontroversial, it makes you wonder what circles he moves in.

I see such organisations as insidious and corrupting. I see them as the means by which money comes to dominate public life without having to declare its hand. I see them as representing everything that has gone wrong with our politics.

• George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist”

New all-party push for proportional representation

This week is the first National Democracy Week – a rare moment to put the ‘nuts and bolts’ of democracy on the agenda.

The elections of the past year have shown that Westminster’s First Past the Post system is failing at the lowest democratic hurdle – allowing everyone to participate equally in our politics.

One in five people felt forced to ‘hold their nose’ and opt for a lesser evil rather than their preferred candidate in 2017’s General Election.

68% of votes had no impact on the result – going to either unsuccessful candidates or being ‘surplus to requirements’. Under the Westminster’s system, all that is required for victory is a majority of one.

And the system is exaggerating divisions in the UK – Labour secured 29% of the vote in the South East but got just 10% of seats, while the Conservatives won 34% of the North East vote but got just 9% of seats.

This isn’t some anomaly – this is built into a stone-age system where having one more cross in the box than the rest is all that counts: every other vote goes to waste.

But Westminster’s system can’t even do what it says on the tin – produce ‘strong’ single-party government. The Conservatives were required to make an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to ensure it could govern with any degree of reliability.

These serious flaws in the Westminster system are why today, during the first National Democracy Week, we are marking the relaunch of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Proportional Representation.

This will see MPs from across the political spectrum meet to support a change in the voting system – to one which better matches seats in the House of Commons to how people actually voted.

It will be chaired by Labour MP Daniel Zeichner, joined by Martyn Day MP (SNP), Wera Hobhouse MP (Liberal Democrat), Jeremy Lefroy MP (Conservative), Caroline Lucas MP (Green), Lord Warner (Crossbench) and Hywel Williams MP (Plaid Cymru) as Vice-Chairs. This is a powerful cross-party coalition for change.

We know that while the existing Westminster system may be all that many voters in England have ever known, it is far from the only way. There are much better options.

Every new democratic institution created in the past two decades has, in fact, rejected First Past The Post. Voters in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (and indeed, in most modern democracies) are all used to more proportional systems – seeing their voices properly and fairly reflected in the corridors of power, and with seats matching votes. (For more information on the alternatives see here)

Yet Westminster’s creaking voting system is stuck in the dark ages.

National Democracy Week has been launched with the noble intention that “regardless of who we are or where we are from, we must work together to ensure that every member of society has an equal chance to participate in our democracy and to have their say.”

Let us recognise that the ‘one-party-takes-all’ system does not achieve this. It was designed for another age – and doesn’t work today.

Let’s move towards a democratic system built for our time: where everyone’s voice is heard. That, surely, would be fitting progress to mark the first National Democracy Week.”

“Democracy Week” …. why it is undemocratic

Apparently, it’s “Democracy Week” …. Owl finds it hard to believe.

Here are 4 reasons from the Electoral Reform Society why it is anything but:

1. The first-past-the-post system of voting.

2. Inequality in the minimum voting age in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

3. “A House of Cronies” aka the gerrymandered House of Lords.

4. The political gender gap.

For more information, see: