Onward has had a meteoric rise. Since its inception in 2018, five of its founding advisory board members have taken roles in Conservative cabinets and its reports regularly feature in print and broadcast media.
Onward, which describes itself as “a modernising think tank” with “bold and practical ideas for the centre right”, was ubiquitous at Tory conference in Manchester this week. It hosted two dozen fringe sessions, and it will be out in force at Labour conference in Liverpool this weekend.
While Tufton Street’s free market think tanks refuse to declare their donors, Onward is something of a novelty on Britain’s right-wing think tank scene – twice a year it publishes names of anyone who contributes £5,000 or more (although the value of donations is not declared, nor what the funding is for).
Fossil fuel giants Shell and BP are members of Onward’s “business network”, where for £12,000 (plus VAT) members get invites to networking opportunities, briefings and previews of reports.
Onward has been vocal on energy issues. It has called for the Tory government to apply windfall taxes on renewables rather than oil and gas giants and has proposed diversifying “energy supplies through greater use of oil and coal in the short term”.
Last week, another Onward donor, Equnior, received government approval to develop the Rosebank oil field in the North Sea.
Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer said that it’s “a huge concern to see that a think tank with so much influence right at the heart of the government and the opposition is funded by fossil fuel companies”, adding that “we need to get fossil fuel funding out of politics”.
Onward said it does not accept corporate sponsorship of research reports, noting that it published a report last week making the case for government to go further and faster on decarbonisation.
In all, Onward lists more than 20 “corporate partners”, including Al Altep Holdings Inc, a New York-registered holding company controlled by Len Blavatnik, according to 2021 US filings. Blavatnik made his fortune trading commodities in post-Soviet Russia and topped the Sunday Times Rich List in 2021.
Al Altep Holdings has donated millions of dollars to both Republicans and Democrats in the US, including GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell. Another company owned by Blavatnik previously donated $1 million to Donald Trump’s inauguration committee.
Blavatnik, a dual US-British citizen, is best known in the UK for his sponsorship of the Tate and the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. He has not made political donations in the UK, but he has funded the influential conservative think tank Policy Exchange.
Blavatnik did not respond to a request for comment.
‘Unparalleled Branding Opportunities’
Onward’s disclosures give a rare insight into how a think tank’s funding pool grows. Five years ago, Onward had only a handful of backers, including some charitable foundations and the Tory-linked public affairs firm WPI Strategy.
By 2021, the think tank had more than a dozen corporate partners, including Amazon, energy giant SSE, the National Union of Farmers, and the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
The think tank has also received funding from leading Conservative funders, including mega-donors such as current party treasurer Graham Edwards, former Tory CEO Sir Mick Davis, and IPGL Limited, which is owned by Conservative Foundation board member Lord Michael Spencer.
Onward is well plugged into Tory circles. Conservative MP Neil O’Brien was a co-founder – along with former Theresa May staffer Will Tanner – and the think tank’s current director, former journalist Sebastian Payne, has put himself forward as a Conservative general election candidate.
At Conservative conference, Onward advertised drinks reception sponsorship deals for £30,000 that would give “unparalleled branding opportunities” at an event “for around 200 MPs, special advisers, journalists and industry leaders. It includes a speech from a senior Cabinet minister and remarks from our partner.”
But Onward has been building bridges with Labour, too. Onward’s pre-conference promotional material includes Labour MP Lucy Powell MP saying: “I think Onward are a fantastic think tank”.
At Labour conference, Onward is offering “partnering opportunities” that include funding a private roundtable “led by a senior MP or shadow minister”, priced at £17,500.
Responding to questions about its funding, an Onward spokesperson said that the think tank “is committed to openness about our funding.
“We are a not-for-profit organisation and rely entirely on the generosity of our network to support our research programme”.
This article was originally published on Peter Geoghegan’s Substack, Democracy for Sale.