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Monday, May 20, 2019

Who funds Farage's Brexit Party?

There is an interesting article in today's Guardian reporting that the Electoral Commission is under mounting pressure to launch an investigation into the funding of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party because of concerns that its donation structure could allow foreign interference in British democracy.

The paper says Gordon Brown has written to the Electoral Commission calling on it to urgently examine whether the party has sufficient safeguards on its website to prevent the contribution of “dirty money”. They add that the former Labour prime minister will use a speech in Glasgow on Monday to say an investigation into the Brexit party’s finances is urgent and essential:

While other parties require personal information from donors, the Brexit party allows donations of less than £500 via a PayPal account, which critics said leaves the way open to abuse by foreign donors wishing to influence British elections.

Richard Tice, the Brexit party’s chair and co-founder, said on Monday he did not know whether the PayPal account allowed the party to receive smaller donations in foreign currencies.

“I don’t sit in front of the PayPal account all day, so I don’t know what currencies people are paying in,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Asked several times to rule out receipt of such sums from foreign currencies, Tice did not do so. He said: “We’ve got a PayPal account for people who are paying less than £500. Above that we apply the appropriate Electoral Commission rules.”

Any complaints, he said, came from “jealous Westminster people who are just aghast at how we can capture the mood of the country”.

Brown’s intervention comes after Farage boasted that the party was attracting donations of £100,000 a day. He told the Telegraph that about 2,000 individual donors were signing up daily.

It was echoed by Labour’s Ben Bradshaw, who said: “It’s absolutely essential that there’s an urgent investigation into this.

“The fact that it’s three years after a referendum that was subverted by dark money, it’s absolutely incredible that nothing has happened. Some at the NCA and at the Electoral Commission have to wake up. We’re facing a real threat to our democracy.”

In his speech, Brown will also support calls for the European parliament to examine whether Farage has received undeclared funding personally in his time as an MEP after a Channel 4 investigation found that he had benefited from £450,000 from the businessman Arron Banks.

Brown will claim Banks’s commercial interests “have never been fully and satisfactorily divulged”, and point to his “long-term contacts with Russia”.

The other questions are over the Brexit party’s links to a disgraced former aide to Farage who was imprisoned in the US after being caught offering money laundering services to undercover federal agents:

George Cottrell was with Farage when he was arrested at Chicago O’Hare airport in July 2016. He had been working in Farage’s office and claimed on his LinkedIn account to have co-directed Ukip’s EU referendum campaign fundraising.

He was charged with 21 counts including money laundering, wire fraud, blackmail and extortion. He would later plead guilty to participating in a scheme to “advertise money laundering services on a Tor network black market website” and served eight months in prison.

After the arrest, Farage called Cottrell a “22-year-old unpaid volunteer and party supporter” and said he knew nothing of the allegations.

The Guardian understands that Cottrell has told friends that he is now overseeing the Brexit party’s fundraising operation. On Sunday the Sunday Times also reported that a senior source in the party said that Cottrell had “reprised his role as one of [Farage’s] top fundraisers”.

A spokesman for the Brexit party said Cottrell had “no official position with the party and is not paid by the party”. He declined to deny Cottrell’s unpaid involvement. Cottrell’s previous fundraising role with Ukip was in “an unpaid role”, according to an interview he gave the Telegraph after his release.

There is certainly a case for a full investigation. Brexit has always been about money, enabling some of its biggest proponents to trade free of European regulations so as to maximise profits. But as LSE professor Damian Tambini says, it has also exposed loopholes in the donation structure set up by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000:

“Our election finance controls are failing,” he said. “UK law has strict bars on foreign finance of election communications, and overall limits on campaign spending … The Electoral Commission should signal that they are looking into this.”

We are now facing an election in which the party leading the polls is actually a limited company with Farage in complete control. It has no manifesto, no members as such, no grassroots activity or branches, links to a convicted money launderer and an opaque funding structure that allows foreign donations under £500, but adding up to £100,000 a day.

Isn't it time the Electoral Commission proved it is not the toothless watchdog we all think it is? And isn't it time the Government allowed a full and empowered investigation of the funding of the Leave campaign in 2016?
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