Who pays the piper? Keep tabs on political donations

In anticipation of this week’s London Mayoral elections, I’ve been playing with the Electoral Commission’s Register of Political Donations database. Not that I expect to find any major scoops in an hour’s pottering about, nor that it’s a particularly new resources, but because its one of only a handful of databases available to UK journalists seeking to hold the political classes in check.


In America they are far luckier, with stronger FOI laws and a long and (fairly) distinguished history of disclosure, across all legislatures.  Journalists there have many databases and online resources available to them, and it’s little wonder that Computer Assisted Reporting has played a major role in the winning of  several Pulitzer Prizes over the past 20-odd years.


So what can UK journalists do with this database?  Well, essentially you can find out details about political donations going back to the beginning of 2001. It’s got a range of features which help you look at different aspects of the information available, so I’ll go through what I’ve found particularly useful, and the types of reporting/journalistic role these elements might suite.


If you are a features reporter, you might want to go to the Donor Status drop-down and take a look at the alternatives.  You might question what constitutes an Impermissible Donor. But equally, you might want to ask yourself what an Unincorporated Association is (as it turns out, they can be pretty shady). The database will show you that in the last quarter of 2007 (select from the drop-down) the Tories received over £550,000 from these sources, while both Labour and the Lib Dems received approximately £45,000 a piece  Where does this disparity come from, and how does it measure up historically?  It would be easy to lift this data out and paste into Excel, and put together a chart showing the volumes of these donations to each party over time. 


If you are a regional journalist, you might want to find out how much has been ploughed into your local constituency or area in donations – take a look at the second box down – Received by (Head office or name of accounting unit).  Which party receives the most donations, and how does this tally with local issues and events, like local luminaries, marginal seats etc.?


If you are an entertainment (or Diary) journalist, you might want to focus on the Donor name box.  Obviously not all donators are named individuals, there are groups, companies and various other associations and charities – and some donations are generated by hospitality events.  Search in here for the term dinner or ball or even golf and you’ll quickly find out how much our political parties have benefited to the tune of.  You can even search in this box by industry (I’ve tried food and aviation and found several results).  Of course these results are not the full story, you’ll have to dig further and see if you can unearth those company names which don’t feature the name (or description) of the industry in which they operate.


The one draw back I’ve found with searching individuals is that the presentational format used is two initials and a surname.  This is a proverbial chocolate teapot if you happen to be searching for a Smith or a Brown.


But if it were possible to find out these full details from the Electoral Commission, then it may be possible to do all sorts of interesting things with this information, in conjunction with other mechanisms – like Freedom of Information requests.

What if, for example, you were to contact every government department and ask for a breakdown of spending on a certain area (for example, see here how much the Treasury spent on Polling and PR in the last two years).  Then cross-reference the Electoral Commission’s database to see if there are any parliamentary donations from senior figures within these companies.


You could apply this to any area in which the Government procures services from the private sector.


Does anyone have any other suggestions of how this database could be used?


UPDATE: keep track of your local MP’s interests via the Register of Members’ Interests.

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