Elections are only fair if the rules are clear and all sides play by them.
What happened in 2015 in the UK General Election clearly broke those rules. The Electoral Commission, and now the courts, have found that the Conservative party broke the law as regards spending limits in the Thanet South constituency. Whether others did similar in other seats and at other elections is suspected but not proven – at least not in court.
Michael Crick and Channel 4 News have led the way in investigating the Thanet case and their 11 minute wrap up report is well worth watching.
In short, the allegation was that many thousands of pounds of spending on the local campaign effort was either not declared or was listed as national campaigning. The limit locally for the general election was about £15,000. The limit for each party across the whole country was £20 million. It was claimed that many activists went to Thanet to campaign in the seat there for the local candidate and that their hotel bills, wages and other costs were not declared on the local return. The MP, his agent and a party campaign officer were all charged with various counts in regard to these allegations and all denied them.
The court found the MP and the agent not guilty but convicted the party campaign officer of two counts of encouraging a false expenses return. Without being in court for the entire case and on the jury it is impossible to know the exact minds of those who reached the verdict. One possibility (and I would suggest a likely one) is that they decided that the party campaign official was in charge and made the spending decisions and that the MP and agent unwittingly went along with her suggestions, not knowing that they were false or otherwise prohibited by law.
The Conservative Party has suggested that this case shows that the law is unclear and needs to be tightened. Others have said that this was an example of deliberate and blatant over-spending and that similar has happened in other cases too. My suggestion is that both are true.
It seemed to me while following this case (although see the caveat above) that it was quite clear that the Party chose to put national staff into the seat to campaign for the local candidate. This was local campaigning and should have been declared as such.
What is less clear is what aspects should have been declared locally. If there were leaflets advocating a vote for the local MP then these are obviously local spending. Hotel and travel bills, if they were in any way paid for or refunded by the party, would also seem to be appropriate to declare. And with paid staff it seems prudent that if they want to keep their wages off the local return then they should be taking holiday when they are fighting a local seat or demonstrating that such campaigning is happening in non-working hours. But there is confusion about these aspects – often manufactured by the parties – just as there is with the case of busloads of activists whose transport and food is paid for by the party centrally.
So a clear declaration by the Electoral Commission is needed. They should be setting out what they will choose to define as national spending and what must be accounted for locally. Such a declaration should understand the reality on the ground when it comes to aspects such as party leader visits, but it is long overdue. What I suspect will happen is that the Commission will continue to prevaricate and the parties – who have no incentive to clear things up – will do similar.
When people question why the UK does not receive top marks when it comes to surveys of the quality of democracy in the country, it is aspects like this that are to blame.