Scottish political parties and candidates have raised over £400,000 through online crowdfunders ahead of the Scottish elections, according to data compiled by The Ferret, prompting campaigners to warn of the need for “heavy scrutiny”.
Parties said that raising funds online was an essential way of reaching local supporters. But campaigners warned that while they could be “less elitist” they were also harder to track and must be carefully checked after the election to ensure compliance with election funding rules.
Our analysis of the platform crowdfunder.co.uk revealed a series of potential breaches of the Electoral Commission’s guidance on crowdfunding.
Our data showed that in total £403,595 has been raised through the crowdfunder platform by 13 parties or individual candidates representing them.
The total is almost twice what was raised by Scottish candidates standing in the General Election in 2017.
According to the Electoral Commission political fundraising rules – that mean all donations over £50 must be checked to ensure they came from “a permissible” source – should be made clear on crowdfunding pages.
This usually means parties must check that the donation came from someone on the UK electoral register. Accepting a donation from an “impermissable source” can be a criminal offence.
The Electoral Commission guidance also states that parties and candidates should warn potential donors that even when they appear as “anonymous” on the site, their details may be published after all donations have been reported.
However The Ferret found 16 out of 108 crowdfunders made no mention of the rules, in breach of this guidance. A total of 11 SNP candidates fell into this category including deputy party leader Keith Brown and former deputy leader Angus Robertson.
When The Ferret flagged this to the SNP the party re-issued guidance, asking candidates to update their pages accordingly.
Several independents also failed to declare the rules on their sites, along with candidates for Reform UK and the Scottish Family Party.
Two party-wide crowdfunders for Alba, launched by Alex Salmond last month – and which have raised over £50k – also failed to state the rules on their crowdfunder pages.
Scottish Labour meanwhile fronted its 30 crowdfunder pages with the names and images of individual candidates but added to notes that all donations were for the party. It claims this means it only checks on donations of more than £500, the party limit rather than the lower limit of £50 used by all other candidates.
The Ferret asked the Electoral Commission to comment but it said only that in the case of anonymous donations parties “must collect sufficient information from every donor” to ensure “each donation is from a permissible source”.
According to data collected by The Ferret, the SNP has received the most donations with a total £194,151 as of Wednesday 21 April. They also have the most crowdfunding campaigns of any Scottish party on the site, with a total of 57 election crowdfunding appeals – either now closed or still running.
According to research undertaken by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the SNP raised more cash using this method than any other UK political party in the 2017 general election campaign, collectively making more than £159,000 at the time.
Meanwhile Scottish Labour candidates have raised a total of £59,641 to date for the May 2021 elections.
Alba has raised £55,855 and the Scottish Greens £39,921. The Independence for Scotland party (ISP) also raised £10,605 before it decided its candidates would stand down its Holyrood candidates in support of Alba.
ISP leader, Colette Walker, told The Ferret that she had written to all donors and only five had requested a refund. She said the money would be used instead “to build our profile and for future elections” with a return submitted to the Electoral Commission.
The Scottish Conservatives is not crowdfunding and the Scottish Liberal Democrats has just one crowdfunder running for Glasgow Kelvin candidate David McKenzie, which has so far raised £30.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney, who is seeking re-election in Perthshire North, topped the candidate poll, receiving £15,800 from 236 donors in 35 days.
Second was the independent Andy Wightman who received £14,792 from 297 donors in 21 days. Wightman, who resigned from the Scottish Greens last December after accusing some party members of showing “intolerance” to “mature dialogue” over transgender rights, is now standing as a regional list candidate for the Highlands and Islands.
Third was Scottish Labour Jackie Baillie, who originally led by some distance in her fundraising campaign to be re-elected in Dumbarton. She raised £14,220 from 519 donors in 16 days. Toni Giugliano, her SNP rival in Dumbarton raised £7,020 from 184 supporters in 42 days.
Tom Brake, director of campaigning organisation Unlock Democracy, claimed that as long as rules were strictly followed, Crowdfunding campaigns could be “good for democracy”.
He said: “Crowdfunding is a less elitist way of raising funds than the private dinner circuit. However the political parties still need to follow strict Electoral Commission rules over the logging of the names and addresses of some donors, providing donors with the required information about whether their donations will be publicly recorded and the identification and rejection of impermissible donations, including from foreign donors.
“This will be much harder to track with electronic donations and the parties must be heavily scrutinised after the election to ensure compliance.
“Providing the parties follow the rules to the letter and report donations accurately and faithfully, crowdfunding could widen their financial support base, with more but smaller donations, reducing their dependency on big donors, that would be good for our democracy.”
An SNP spokesperson confirmed that all donations to SNP candidates over £50 are declared in the candidate’s election return.
They added: “The SNP is reliant on voluntary donations to power our election success. Crowdfunding helps our local teams tap into small donations from our mass membership. It’s only through the amazing generosity of our supporters that keeps us campaigning for independence.”
Scottish Labour did not respond directly to The Ferret’s request for comment on its decision to invoke the higher limit. But Ian Murry MP, shadow secretary of state for Scotland, said: “Political fundraising is rightly regulated and the law applies however it is done.
“Crowdfunding can be a useful way for local parties to garner local donations to their campaigns. It is their choice, and while guidance is offered centrally, they are responsible for carrying out permissibility checks.”
“All donations are checked against the electoral register for compliance when received, to ensure that all funds remain above board.”
All other parties were contacted by The Ferret
*This story was updated to make clearer that data was pulled from crowdfunder.co.uk