Change UK-The Independent Group – the new political party launched by Chuka Umunna – is funded by a former Tony Blair aide who now runs a "communications" company representing the repressive government of Qatar, arms firm BAE Systems and the fizzy drinks firms fighting anti-obesity legislation.
This week, Change UK voluntarily announced their largest donors so far. The party was formed by eight Labour and three Tory MPs, claiming that because "politics is broken", they're "building a new politics". But this list of donors suggests they are close to an old, big-business-led politics. Their third largest donor is Timothy Allan, who gave the new party £20,000.
Timothy – or Tim – Allan was a key adviser to Tony Blair, helping to run his media for the six years before he became Prime Minister, and then acting as his special adviser for the first year he was in government. Allan is seen as one of the key shapers of New Labour, so his support suggests Change UK are in part heirs to Blair.
However, Allan’s business career suggests more controversial associations. Allan is Managing Director of Portland PR, a communications consultancy he founded in 2001. According to the Public Affairs Board, the self-regulating body for the public affairs and lobbying industry, current clients of Portland include the Governments of Qatar and Kazakhstan.
Qatar is an absolute monarchy in the Gulf ruled by an Emir. Dissidents are imprisoned and migrant workers – including those building the 2022 World Cup facilities – are badly exploited, with high death rates in construction. Portland has been criticised for helping set up a website that attacked critics of Qatar’s bid for the World Cup. Portland said that while their staff helped create the website, they did not control it.
Kazakhstan is an authoritarian regime with what Human Rights Watch calls a "poor human rights record", where opponents of the government are arrested and harassed, and prisoners are tortured.
Portland say their team "helps governments and leaders to build, profile and protect reputations". They also say that they help "businesses and organisations wanting to shape public policy" by "ensuring they are heard by the right people". Allan’s firm boast that, "Our team deploys its extensive in-depth experience of UK government and Parliament to support clients in their dealings with policy-makers."
Companies represented by Portland include arms firm BAE, which has been heavily criticised for selling weapons to undemocratic regimes, like those used by Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war. It has also been criticised for corruption; in 2010, BAe paid nearly £300 million to settle corruption charges in the UK and US.
Other controversial Portland clients include Vertex, a pharmaceutical firm producing the expensive Orkambi drug that treats Cystic Fibrosis. The NHS is trying to negotiate supply of Orkambi for UK patients, but Vertex has turned down an offer of £500 million over five years for the potentially life-saving drug, insisting that their initial, more expensive offer was "the best price in the world".
Portland make clear they will fight health-oriented legislation for their clients. The firm represents the British Soft Drinks Association, the trade body representing Coca-Cola and other sweet fizzy drink firms. Portland helped them run the campaign against the “Sugar Tax”, aimed at persuading drinks firms to reduce the sugar content of their products. Money raised is used for healthy schools initiatives. Portland use their "campaign against the tax" as a case study on their website. Oddly, Portland say, "The campaign is ongoing," despite the fact the government successfully imposed the Sugar Tax in April of 2018
Allan's Portland ran into another controversy in 2006, when the firm was hired by Supermarket group Asda to run a campaign to remove union rights in one of their depots. The move was fiercely and successfully resisted by trade union GMB. An Employment Tribunal described the leaflets produced by Portland as "very hostile to trade unions and highly disparaging of the process of collective bargaining".
Tim Allan told VICE, "This is a personal donation, that has nothing whatsoever to do with Portland," adding that he gave the money because "I wanted to play some role, in a personal capacity, in helping those who want to shake up British politics, because it certainly needs it." Referring to the Independent Group’s much-criticised branding, Allan added, "I just hope they didn’t spend it on the logo."
Allan has not been a major political donor before, although he did give £10,000 to Liz Kendall’s losing campaign for the Labour leadership against Jeremy Corbyn in 2015.
VICE asked the Independent Group for comment, but they did not respond.