News 13th Apr 2018

Corruption, Wealth & Political Power

Louise Russell-Prywata

Head of Development

Louise is currently Head of Development here at TI-UK, as well as an Atlantic Fellow for Social & Economic Equity at LSE. She can be found on Twitter here.

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The recent headline that the richest 1% are on target to own two thirds of all wealth by 2030 has caused quite a stir. It’s clear that the public are concerned about the consequences, and many believe it will lead to increased corruption.

The news that the wealth of the richest is growing faster than the wealth of those with more modest resources comes as no surprise to anyone with a standard savings account. What is interesting, however, is the public’s view of the extent to which wealth is linked with political power.

28% of the UK public surveyed for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Inclusive Growth think that today’s “super rich” already have the most power in society; specifically, that the wealthiest have greater ability to “direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events” than any other actors, including the government. This alone is some indictment of our democracy.

When asked about the future, things look even gloomier: 34% think at by 2030 the super rich will have the most power in society. This is more than the 28% of people who that think the government will still have the most power. Clearly, public perceptions suggest we are well en route to plutocracy, and here is where corruption comes into play.

When asked what would worry them if global inequality were to rise, the leading cause for concern is “the super rich enjoying unfair business influence on government policies”, chosen by 43% of people. This, one of nine options in the survey (original data here), is narrowly followed by “rising levels of corruption”, chosen by 41%.

From Transparency International UK’s perspective, these two issues are closely related. We define corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain, and lobbying – the type of unfair influence implied by the first survey option – is a significant focus for our work. Indeed there is nothing to suggest that this is confined to business influence; this seems unnecessarily restrictive, as the disproportionate influence of any special interest group can be bad news for democracy.

Results such as this survey make us more determined to continue our work to reduce undue influence. We have a good understanding of what needs to happen, for example through our research into lobbying risks in UK politics, and our colleagues’ assessment of lobbying at European level.

There are two sides to the lobbying issue – those being lobbied and those doing the lobbying – and both sides require change in order to effectively tackle undue influence. This is why we are currently assessing the global political engagement of some of the largest companies operating in the UK, and will also soon launch a new searchable database of government Ministers’ meetings.

Both these approaches have proven successful at bringing about change, with nearly one-fifth of companies in our pilot political engagement project taking action to improve. Our research into lobbying risks identified a significant loophole permitting donations to political parties in Northern Ireland to be made without transparency, which the government has now addressed (in part; there is still more to do ).

Despite all this, lobbying and undue influence of special – generally wealthy – interests remains one of the most challenging areas for NGOs like Transparency International to work on. Whilst we have significantly shifted the dial both domestically and internationally on corruption issues such as beneficial ownership transparency and unexplained wealth, substantive changes to curb undue influence remain both hard to gain political traction for, and challenging to raise funds to research and campaign for.

Yet we are optimistic and remain determined. The perception* that global inequality is rising is reinforcing public concern about undue influence of money over politics. In the UK there have been words of positive intent from both sides of the political house, and there is increasing attention from companies on the need for greater transparency. Transparency International UK, in coordination with journalists, activists, and others committed to exposing and challenging undue influence – will continue to push for these intentions to translate into change.


* I say perception, as data suggests global income inequality has actually decreased since 2000, although within economies such as the UK, the gap between the richest and poorest has indeed increased. There is also a significant likelihood that top incomes are underestimated due to financial secrecy.