Labour Together Has a New Excuse for Failing to Declare Donations

Morgan McSweeney has questions to answer.

by Paul Holden

7 March 2024

Keir Starmer. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
Keir Starmer. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour party is the product of a long-germinating project run by the once anodyne-seeming think-tank, Labour Together. As such, it is inextricably mired in a tale involving allegations of failures to abide by electoral law over multiple years – one which got even messier last week.

Founded in 2015, Labour Together used to present itself as a non-factional Labour party talking shop, hosting BBQs at party conference doing cross-factional “takeovers” of the LabourList website.

Then, in 2023, it started loudly claiming it was responsible for getting Starmer elected leader of the Labour party. That was before questions arose about its failure to report donations to the Electoral Commission in violation of the law. Now the boasts, once proudly displayed on its website, are nowhere to be found.

Between mid-2017 and late-2020 Labour Together failed to report £739,000 in donations. In September 2021, the Commission levied a paltry £14,250 fine for this failure.

Labour Together has said that its failure to report its donations was “entirely unintentional” and the result of an “administrative oversight”. In a February 2021 letter to the Commission, Labour Together’s lawyer claimed that “enquiries have been made of those involved at the material time and frankly it was assumed that donations were being properly reported as indeed they had been so reported up to late 2017 and early 2018”.

According to the Sunday Times, the individual responsible for this failure was Morgan McSweeney, the former director of Labour Together.

McSweeney is arguably the most powerful person in Starmer’s Labour party. He is the  “secretive guru” who, behind the scenes, has charted Starmer’s path to power and will likely guide him into Number 10.

That’s what makes his conduct worth a closer look.

Newly revealed documents provided to me by the Commission under a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, and new revelations published by The Telegraph, shed more light on conversations between McSweeney and the commission and show what he knew about his responsibilities and when he knew it.

The first document is the Commission’s record of a call McSweeney placed to them in November 2017 about the reporting of donations. The call log shows that McSweeney did not think that donations had to be reported, because Labour Together “do not campaign” and because he believed it was not a Members Association.

However, the log shows that he was advised, “to report the donations to us with a cover letter saying why they had not been reported sooner”.

The second document is a letter from the Commission to McSweeney in December 2017 following this call. It shows that McSweeney was told two things.

First, that Labour Together was in fact a Member’s Association because its board was mostly Labour party MPs: Lisa Nandy, Jon Cruddas and Steve Reed.

Second, as a result, Labour Together simply had to report donations. The Commission helpfully advised McSweeney on how to go about reporting, making it very easy for him to abide by the law.

The third set of documents shows that the Commission reached out to McSweeney via his Labour Together email address in February 2018. McSweeney had filled in a donation report from the previous year incorrectly – using a residential address rather than the one registered to Labour Together – and the Commission was helping him get it squared away.

Asked about the inconsistent address, McSweeney says, “Sorry my mistake. The donation was for Labour Together not me.”

This exchange suggests that McSweeney was aware of his legal duties to report and that the Commission was reminding him how to do it.

This must be read alongside a claim from a well-placed MP source in the Sunday Times’ reporting last year: that McSweeney assured a group of MPs in Parliament in early 2019 that Labour Together was properly reporting its donations. But Labour Together had failed to report a single donation that year, despite taking in over £295,000.

So, over three months McSweeney was repeatedly told by the Commission that he had to report donations, and after he had initiated the conversation. He then told MPs the following year that Labour Together was reporting donations when it wasn’t. Is it credible that he simply forgot to report donations in light of all of this?

The Telegraph has already made up its mind. McSweeney “disregarded the instructions” from the Commission, it reported last week.

The Telegraph report also carried a new explanation for McSweeney’s failings: “multiple well placed sources” claimed that Labour Together failed to report its donations “amid concerns that some funds came from a Jewish donor who needed to be protected.”

There are five reasons why this doesn’t explanation doesn’t, in my opinion, add up.

First, the largest donor to Labour Together was Martin Taylor. During the period in which Labour Together was failing to report donations, Taylor donated £585,992 to the organisation. This was not declared. Taylor is not Jewish.

By comparison, Sir Trevor Chinn, the Jewish donor apparently alluded to by the Telegraph’s sources, donated £175,500 during this time.

Second, Sir Trevor Chinn – a well-known, long-time donor to Labour politicians – was already a publicly listed director of Labour Together. His involvement in Labour Together was far from a secret.

Third, records show that Labour Together did report one single donation to the commission between 2018 and late 2020: a £12,500 donation from Chinn. Why would they only record a donation from the person they were trying to protect?

Fourth, Chinn told the Telegraph that he was totally unaware that the donations were not being reported and that he had believed that they were. It would be extremely strange for Labour Together to go to such lengths to protect Chinn, without his knowledge, about something he seemed completely unconcerned about.

Finally, the law is clear: donations have to be reported. There is no “I’m worried what the public might think” clause baked into a legal system designed to ensure maximum transparency about the funding of our political system. Even if the fears of antisemitism were credible and genuine, violating the law was not an option available to McSweeney and Labour Together.

What is interesting about this cockamamie story, however, is its unstated implication: if it is in any way accurate, it shows that a decision was indeed made to not report donations. It also shows that some of those closest to the Starmer project feel no shame in mobilising antisemitism to explain away all sorts of unrelated, and possibly illegal, conduct.

Neither forgetfulness nor “concerns about antisemitism” appear adequate to explain McSweeney’s failure to report Labour Together’s donations.

So, two questions remain: why did this happen, and what was Labour Together doing with its huge pot of undisclosed donations?

Neither Labour Together nor Morgan McSweeney responded to Novara Media’s requests for a comment on these matters.

When approached for a comment about the new revelations by the Telegraph, Labour Together said it had, “proactively raised concerns about its own reporting of donations to the Electoral Commission” and that it “fully cooperated” with the Commission’s investigation.

By the time Labour Together self-reported, however, McSweeney had already left as a director. Labour Together also said it was “concerned” that these “new allegations may draw on information that emanates from an illegal hack of the Electoral Commission”, referring to a hack of the Commission in 2021.

The Electoral Commission told the Telegraph, “we carried out our investigation into Labour Together before the cyber-attack took place.”

Paul Holden is an investigative journalist and author with 15 years experience investigating corruption. His new book, Keir Starmer, Labour Together and the Crisis of British Democracy is due to be published by Or Books later this year.

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