Trust in political institutions has declined across developed democracies. One of the main reasons cited for this lack of trust has been the role of money in politics, while standing up to ‘big money’ has been a common rallying cry of populists of both left- and right-wing variants. Political scientists have tried to examine the role of big money in two main steps: firstly, by showing that money can buy access to legislators; and, secondly, that legislators are thereby more responsive to the wishes of donors when writing and voting on laws. Researchers have used experiments and other techniques to show that Congressional staffs are more responsive to requests from donors compared to others and have also shown aggregate trends in responsiveness to the preferences of the wealthier. In this paper we try and go one step further: to show that donors can become legislators. We do this by looking at the example of the House of Lords. Compiling an original dataset of large donations and nominations for peerages, the authors show that, when the ‘usual suspects’ for a position, like former MPs and party workers, are accounted for, donations seem to play an outsize role in accounting for the remaining peers.
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These include the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cabinet Secretary, Chief of the Defence Staff, Governor of the Bank of England, Lord Advocate for Scotland, Lord Chief Justice for England and Wales, Private Secretary to the Queen, Speaker of the House of Commons, and in recent decades, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. As is typical of British politics, this happens by convention and there is no definitive list of which public sector roles should come with a seat in the Lords on retirement.
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This is based on there being 847 members of the House of Lords at the time of writing and the UK electorate consisting of just over 44.5 m voters as of 2004.
Overall, nominees from outside the ‘usual suspects’ appear to donate more than 100 times more than nominees from within this group.
The former definition excludes 5 individuals from the data 3 Conservatives, and 2 Labour nominees (all of them ‘Others’, from outside the group of ‘usual suspects’). The latter definition excludes an additional 6 individuals, 1 Conservative, 3 Labour and 1 Liberal Democrat nominees (all outside the group of ‘usual suspects’).
A handful of Crossbenchers are nominated by the Prime Minister in an ex officio capacity rather than in a party leader capacity, and a handful of Crossbenchers are believed to be personal nominees of the Queen, but since 2001, most newly-ennobled Crossbenchers have been nominated by HoLAC.
Multiple scenarios were conducted around this fixed sum allowing it to range from £5k to £1m in 2014 money, so that the results are robust to the particular threshold used.
The 779 big donors actually include various forms of state funding and internal movements of money between different accounting elements of the same political party. No peerage could possibly be associated with these transactions, but their inclusion only serves to make those nominated for a peerage look scarcer among the big donors and so any bias that results reduces the probability of rejecting hypothesis 2.
Standard Note SN/SG/5125, House of Commons Library www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn05125.pdf.
Supposing that the sample of 779 had been drawn from the UK electorate and counting nominees to sit as crossbenchers or for political parties other than the UK’s three main parties as a success actually leads to a reduction in this probability to 3.39 × 10−87, which is the equivalent of the probability of winning the lottery jackpot on 12 consecutive draws.
One of the former Prime Ministers only started donating after leaving office, the other made a one-off donation to their national party whilst still in office. Both had majorities in excess of 18,000, and had long represented ‘safe seats’, and there is no reason to suspect either groups of donations could be correlated to attempts to skew elections in their own constituency. The remaining two individuals (one Labour and one Conservative MP) had donated large sums of money to their local party, in their marginal constituency.
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Radford, S., Mell, A. & Thevoz, S.A. ‘Lordy Me!’ Can donations buy you a British peerage? A study in the link between party political funding and peerage nominations, 2005–2014. Br Polit 15, 135–159 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41293-019-00109-4
- Party funding
- House of lords
- Money in politics
- British politics