Wednesday 23 March 2022

The right to vote doesn't determine honesty


It seems like only days ago (probably because it was only days ago) that Boris Johnson was warning people against being Russophobic. Hardly surprising, in a way, for a man who just a few years ago declared himself to be a committed Russophile. (To say nothing of his being a fervent Sinophile, which is also not a spectacularly good look at present.) In his view, there are good Russians (who donate large sums of money to the Conservative Party) and bad Russians (who owe their wealth, mostly crooked in origin, to the active intervention, or at least passive tolerance, of the Kremlin). The alert may notice that there is no necessary contradiction between the two categories, leaving us with a significant number of Schrodinger’s Russians (those who are simultaneously both good and bad). This week, the Prime minister has warned that allowing foreigners who have made their homes here to vote in local and Senedd elections would open up the UK’s political system to donations from foreign governments, singling out Russians for his attention, in what would look strangely like a Russophobic statement if it hadn’t come from a man who told us that we must not be Russophobic.

Some may struggle to reconcile these two statements – after all, given the extent to which the PM’s party has benefited from generous donations from Russians who qualify to donate by virtue of being on the electoral register, it’s reasonable to wonder why he is now so strongly against it. There is, though, a key difference. The extremely large donations which have been made to his party have come from wealthy Russians who have been allowed to buy UK citizenship, using the money which they’ve effectively stolen from the Russian state and its citizens, aided and abetted by the kleptocracy in the Kremlin. Allowing ordinary, common or garden foreigners – teachers, lecturers, doctors and the like – to vote (and thus donate money from their legitimate earnings) might aid parties other than his own, whereas any sensible billionaire (and especially the crooked variety) looking to protect his own interests doesn’t require a huge degree of intelligence to work out which party is most likely to be of assistance to him. (And with luck, he might even get a peerage as well.)

In reality, the problem here is nothing to do with either nationality or voting rights; it is to do with the rules around political donations and their enforcement. Whether a billionaire donor is Russian or British is irrelevant – the questions should be about the provenance of the money being donated and the extent to which any quid pro quo is involved. Assuming that a donation is legal and clean just because the donor is registered as a UK voter (thereby allowing the receiving party to claim ‘no rules were broken’) is an enormous weakness in the UK’s system. It is, though, not a devolved issue. The Welsh government can decide who may vote in its elections but it can’t change the rules on donations; only the UK government can do that. Instead of criticising the Welsh government for opening up the franchise to all those who’ve decided to make their homes here and contribute to our communities, the UK government should be looking to clean up the rules over political donations rather than using them as an excuse for limiting the franchise. When we look at who benefits from the current lax rules, it doesn’t exactly take a lot of effort to work out why they’re not doing that.

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