Ben Worthy, Stefani Langehennig and Cat Morgan examine a new tool for scrutinising the influence of money on Westminster politics and reflect on what the impact of enhanced transparency in this area might be.
In the last two decades, new platforms, applications and databases offer voters the chance to see what their MP has been doing at the push of a button. Sites like TheyWorkForYou allow users to see individual members’ voting records, appearances in the Commons, and financial declarations. Between 2019 and 2022, we ran a Leverhulme Trust-funded study which looked at the impact of this data. We found that, while voting records on the sites were relatively comprehensive, financial records and data on money were scattered, fragmentary and full of loopholes and gaps.
In early 2023, Sky News/Tortoise media created a new app called Westminster Accounts, which brings together data on donations and register of interests, pulling them into one easy to use tool. The aim is to ‘give voters the chance to explore how much their MP has earned…how much they have declared in donations – and from whom’ and to see ‘how money moves through the political system’.
But how has this tool been used, and what sort of impact will it have?
Tortoise reports in an email that the site had 500,000 views in its first four days, which compares with around 200,000 to 300,000 monthly visits to voting websites. Westminster Accounts has triggered a rolling wave of scrutiny, lighting up the dark space where money meets politics. The coverage began, almost inevitably, with rankings of the highest earners but has moved into questions around who the biggest donors to MPs are and the sometimes murky companies behind them, and scrutiny of the funding of informal Parliamentary groups, called APPGs.
Most use of these tools is local, with constituents using postcode finders to see what their MP has (or hasn’t) done. Leaders and high profile politicians often attract attention too, and Boris Johnson’s large £1 million donation has attracted a great deal of scrutiny from the media (and speculation that it could be used to ‘fund a comeback’). Beyond individuals, there is number crunching from various angles, and there are often national, regional, and local ‘lists’ or rankings, as you can see here in Birmingham, and lists of top donors.
Users of the database so far, as with TheyWorkForYou, seem to be a similar blend of journalists, campaigners, the public, and politicians. The Westminster Accounts data has been picked up far and wide by the media, from Lincoln to Belfast, and Cardiff to Edinburgh.
Theresa May’s own local paper flagged up her status as number one outside earner. Even specialist publications like the Times Higher Education found an angle, such as a piece on MPs with second jobs in universities. Campaigners are using the data to call for change, while the local letters pages and social media seem to show members of the public have been conducting their own calculations.
Yet data are often politicised, and MPs and their staff make up a large 2% of all the users of TheyWorkForYou. At least one MP has utilized Westminster Accounts so far, asking a question at PMQs about Boris Johnson, and you can see local opposition parties picking data up, such as the Wokingham Lib-Dems.
So what will the release of this data do? They are certainly opening up, and creating new transparency pressures. They are likely to make MPs more accountable – we found voting data made Members speak more about how they voted, as a kind of ‘informatory accountability’. MPs are already explaining more about their donations and interests in their local papers. Some MPs may be keener to explain themselves, and think twice about their sources of funding.
This is likely to vary depending, as we found, on whether they are in government or opposition, how long they’ve been in Parliament, and whether they are male or female. MPs in government face greater scrutiny than those in opposition and, as has been shown, female MPs generally face greater scrutiny than their male colleagues. However, longevity seems to make for less sensitivity, as those in seats longer were generally less worried by data-driven scrutiny. Crucially, the issues of second jobs and outside incomes are very much a Conservative problem, as 37 of the 45 top earners were Conservative MPs (and it is also, interestingly, a male problem).
In the short term, the data will help confirm Labour’s plans to ban second jobs, and call into question the Conservatives’ dropping of reforms over limiting second jobs or caps on earning in 2021 that they originally supported. It has also triggered a rare joint letter from the Speaker of the Common and Speaker of the Lords calling for reform to the system of All Party Parliamentary Groups. In the longer term, the new database, like voting data before it, will probably become a ‘short-cut’, a source of ammunition and a standard go to measure of MPs probity, especially at election time.
How it will impact on the public is less clear. As this poll put it, ‘half of Britons disapprove of MPs having second jobs – but it depends on what the job is’. It is likely that the narratives and stories will feed public perceptions that already exist about politicians’ self-interest.
In a poll in 2021, 65% of those asked felt that ‘most MPs are too easily influenced by the rich and powerful’ with 55% believing there was ‘insufficient transparency’ over ethics and only 31% that MPs ‘act with integrity’. Headlines that MPs are ‘part-time’ will reinforce this, and some MPs are concerned that the public assume money goes directly into MPs’ pockets, rather than on campaigns and office costs, where it really ends up.
The data will certainly shine a light and create pressure, but whether it will help ‘clean’ up politics and public perceptions is a different matter.
By Dr Ben Worthy, Senior Lecturer, Birkbeck University, Dr Stefani Langehennig, Associate Professor of the Practice, University of Denver, and Dr Cat Morgan, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Heriot-Watt University.