As Labour goes through the protracted identity crisis that is its leadership contest, it looks like big money is helping guide the party's direction. Corporate lobbyists for austerity are funding a deputy leadership campaign. With a row in the party this week about whether to back the government's benefit cuts, you have to wonder what influence those funders could have.
On her deputy leadership campaign website, Caroline Flints says Labour must be, "A grassroots movement – not a Westminster elite". Flint is a serious contender to be deputy leader of the Labour Party. Just to prove how "grassroots" and definitely-not-part-of-a-closed-elite she is, her campaign is being partly staffed by corporate lobbyists called Sovereign Strategy. Their clients include a US company that judges whether or not disabled people should get any benefits or be thrown to compete an unforgiving jobs market. Disability campaigners told VICE that the funding is an "insult".
According to Flint's entry on the Register of MP's Interests, Sovereign are helping run her campaign by donating a "seconded member of staff to work on deputy leadership campaign, value £8,000".
Sovereign are a lobbying company offering "a bespoke programme of political engagement for each client". A former intern said this includes "facilitating" communication between corporate clients and "strategic partners in the British and European Parliament." In other words, rich companies pay them to nudge politicians in business-friendly directions.
As they try to sell their services, Sovereign make a big deal about their Labour links. They tell clients their Chairman and Founder, Alan Donnelly "served as a Labour Member of the European Parliament for 11 years" and include a statement from Tony Blair calling Donnelly an "outstanding member of Labour's team".
Sovereign are also linked to the business of austerity. One of their bigger clients is called Maximus. Maximus is a US corporation that runs government welfare schemes. Their biggest UK contract is running "Work Capability Assessments" on disabled people applying for benefits. Maximus will get £595 million over three years testing disabled people. Anyone judged "fit for work" by Maximus staff will not get benefits.
The privatised assessments are intensely controversial. Under the previous contractor, French multinational Atos, delays and misjudgements on the tests caused anguish and anger among disabled people. Horror stories were common: Terminal cancer patients were told to get their lazy arses off their deathbeds and find a job, only to kick the bucket shortly afterwards. People with mental health problems are made anxious by the uncertainty over their benefits.
Labour introduced the privatised Work Capability Assessment in 2007, but have since tried to distance themselves from the policy. When Cameron's government gave Maximus the contract for the tests last October, Labour's spokeswoman Kate Green said the US firm could not fix the assessments with "600,000 people stuck in a huge backlog while many thousands more are being let down by a failing service which is costing taxpayers millions of pounds". Funny, then, that the party's deputy leadership race is being funded by lobbyists who work for Maximus.
It's handy that Flint has been so "tough talking" on benefits in her deputy leadership campaign. She told the Sun that Labour should give people "choosing" to "live off benefits" a "kick up the backside".
In a Deputy Leadership Hustings Flint said "I want a Britain where hard work pays, responsibility is rewarded, everyone plays by the same rules and shares in the rewards". In fact, Maximus themselves haven't always played by the rules. Soon after their appointment to the disability benefits tests, campaigners highlighted concerning aspects of the country's history. For example, In 2007 Maximus had to pay a $30.5 million fine in the US to settle charges that they cheated a contract to run America's "Medicaid" programme for sick children.
When they won their Work Capability Assessment contract, campaigners led by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) organised a rebranding of Maximus as "Maximarse". DPAC activists were surprised to see Maximus executives had themselves bought the domain name www.maximarse.com, in an apparent bid to prevent campaigners setting up a piss-taking website.
Campaigners for Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) – a genuine grassroots movement that relies on donations – that have led fierce battles against benefit cuts and bullying were unimpressed. A spokesperson for DPAC told me, "The fact that Flint is working with the same lobby group as Maximus is an insult to disabled people. It speaks volumes on any supposed distinctions between left and right when it comes to disability issues."
A spokesman for the Caroline4Deputy campaign said: "We are proud to have received donations from many Labour party members and business people supporting Caroline Flint's campaign to be Labour's Deputy Leader. All donations are fully and openly declared and are permissible under the Electoral Commission's rules. Sovereign Strategy has provided one in-kind donation of a member of staff to the campaign on secondment. This member of staff is an active Labour Party member and there is no conflict of interest of any kind."
No other candidates for Leader or Deputy Leader have declared their funding yet, apart from Tom Watson, who got £4,000 from JK Rowling. But if Flint's support from corporate lobbyists is anything to go by, rich companies, including ones that work for people who help carry out austerity measures, will have their say in who runs the "People's Party".
More from VICE: