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The moral grey areas in political fundraising

In an establishment on Early Grey Street in Tollcross, customers stroll through a small but well-organised salesroom, browsing through a selection of clothes or studying the backs of used books. This place is not unlike dozens of charity shops in Edinburgh, apart from one crucial difference; signs on the shop’s entrance door and inside state this is “a fundraising shop run by volunteers for the Scottish Conservatives”. Former Conservative party councillor Alistair Paisley, who has run these pop-up shops for fifteen years, is keen to emphasise this; when customers ask which charity it is, he clarifies, “it’s not a charity”.

According to local news media, one of Mr Paisley’s previous fundraising stores for the Conservative Party was less transparent about its purpose. There was no sign on the entrance door, only a sign printed on A4 paper inside the shop. At least one costumer felt deceived and the Scottish Trading Union investigated. When questioned about this previous fundraising organisation, Mr Paisley stated that the Conservative party and other political parties are charities, a claim he now retracts. He now states that the prior shop was run together with a church which possessed charitable status, but that “a political party can’t be a charity”. Indeed, on its website the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator asserts that an organisation “cannot be a charity if it is a political party, or one of its purposes is to advance a political party”.

With its clear signage and a second-hand goods trader’s license, the current shop is perfectly legal and its aims are transparent. In fact, the Conservatives are not the only ones who have ventured into novel forms of political fundraising. A popular tool is Crowdfunder, used both by the Edinburgh Green Party and the Edinburgh Labour Party. Grassroots fundraising such as this – the active involvement of individual citizens in reaching party or campaign financing goals – appears a welcome way of promoting voters’ interest and active participation in politics. As a 2015 study by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology shows, voter turnouts in general elections and party membership have declined over the last 50 years. The authors of the study suggest that young people could be more likely to engage in informal political participation, such as activism and political consumerism, which in turn could be used to promote participation in elections.

Linda Smith and Kent Wilne, two volunteers in Mr Paisley’s Conservative fundraising shop, enjoy interacting with costumers. Do some of them ask about the political affiliation of the shop? Yes, but not in a sceptical manner, Mrs Smith says. Mr Paisley himself recounts one or two instances in which costumers left the shop after learning about its background, but says that he would do the same if he entered a shop run by the Labour Party.

Could bottom-up fundraising, including second-hand pop-up stores, bring politics closer to home? The idea seems appealing, but several complications arise. Most importantly, such shops could pave the way for blurring boundaries between charity and political fundraising. Costumers may not know that their money flows directly to the fund of a political party, either due to their own lack of attention, or because a shop’s political agenda is not clearly advertised. While legal regulations prevent charities from political fundraising, consumers could still be confused. The situation gets particularly complex when fundraising organisations publicise their political purposes but otherwise look and operate like a charity. Similarly, a self-proclaimed charity which denies any connection with a specific political platform but regularly supports the policies of a specific party may reside in a moral grey area. This potential lack in transparency can, in the worst case, increase mistrust or resignation towards politics as a whole.

Bottom-up political activism represents a central pillar of a functioning democracy and can promote re-engagement of the general public in political life. However, it requires clear – maybe clearer – rules as well as responsible fundraisers and attentive consumers, who are committed to honesty and transparency.

Image: Magdalena Schwarz

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