Donations belie firms’ reticence on red or blue

With the growth of the cult of personality and a recognition of the value of social media and change-orientated soundbites, the UK general election is increasingly resembling that of the 2008 US presidential election.

With the growth of the cult of personality and a recognition of the value of social media and change-orientated soundbites, the UK general election is increasingly resembling that of the 2008 US presidential ­election.

But while law firms are both active lobbyists and ­funders of the main US ­political parties – research by The Lawyer reveals that US lawyers working for UK firms donated around $400,000 (£262,917) to Democrat candidate ­Barack Obama and a tenth of that to his Republican ­counterpart John McCain during the recent US presidential ­campaign – UK firms tend to be at pains to stress their neutral stances.

“As an organisation we should be apolitical,” opines Eversheds managing ­partner Lee Ranson. So he was surprised to learn that a donation of £2,500 made in December 2008 to the Conservatives had been booked in Eversheds’ name.

“There’s no record on our accounts system of money having gone out,” Ranson says when contacted by The Lawyer for comment.

After a bit of digging he points out that this was not an institutional donation, but one made by an individual – and unnamed – partner who “was at a dinner [organised by the Conservative Party] in a ­personal capacity and bid on an ­auction prize”.

The onus in party political donations is on the parties themselves to declare the origin of any finance. ­Ranson says his firm will be asking the Electoral ­Commission to amend its records to make it clear that there was no direct firmwide financial support.

Around £29,000 in funding has been made in DLA Piper’s name to the Labour Party since 2005. But while chief executive Nigel Knowles was happy to be photographed with Obama when he was a presidential candidate, he stresses no such allegiance when it comes to Gordon Brown.

“DLA Piper sponsored the heads of mission reception at the Labour Party Conference in 2009, which we’ve done in previous years,” he explains. “The reception is held for the international diplomatic community at the Labour Party Conference. Also in 2009 we sponsored the international reception at the Conservative Conference, which also has the international diplomatic community in attendance. It’s registered as a donation since the sponsorship is held at the party conference. However, the money goes towards covering the costs of the event, rather than to the political party in ­question.”

Similar emphasis on ­neutrality is made by Bird & Bird chairman David Kerr after The Lawyer found that £8,000 had been donated to Labour by his firm prior to the 2005 election.

“Bird & Bird doesn’t ­support any political party or make party contributions,” stresses Kerr. “Some time before the general election in 2005, a former partner booked a dinner table at a fundraising event in the firm’s name for attendance of himself and guests, who were from outside the firm. This was booked as a donation by the firm, but it was against the policy of the firm, which is, and was then, strictly non-political.”‬‪

It is understood that the payment relates to former Bird & Bird chairman Hamish Sandison, who is now at Field Fisher Waterhouse and is standing as a prospective parliamentary candidate for Labour.

But why this reluctance from UK firms to nail their political colours to the mast? Tony Williams of ­consultancy Jomati thinks it is partly because this ­election is too close to call.

“When it’s not clear who’s going to win, [firms] don’t want to burn their bridges,” he comments.

But this does not mean that firms distance ­themselves from parties altogether – they just do it in a less explicit manner. They work “behind the scenes on formulating policies and providing guidance on ­legislation”, adds Williams.

At least one firm is happy to be associated with a ­particular political party, though. Thompsons Solicitors, which has a long history of advising trade unions, has donated £176,000 in cash and serivces to Labour since 2001. The most recent was £3,550 in cash in December 2009 and a payment of £2,838 to cover equipment in April 2009.

As Thompsons chief ­executive Stephen Cavalier explains: “Thompsons is a Labour movement firm that believes the Labour Party and a Labour government best represents the interests of those we represent – ­people who’ve been injured, mistreated at work or ­subjected to discrimination or injustice.”

Electoral Commission records would suggest Irwin Mitchell is also an avid Labour supporter. It has contributed £86,000 to the Labour Party’s coffers since 2003, the most recent being £6,350 in August 2009. The firm declined to comment on these donations.