Thai election candidates seek attention with name changes

The Guardian reports the news that 15 candidates in Thailand’s general election have changed their names to either Thaksin or Yingluck – the names of previous Prime Ministers. According to the paper, the tactic is to make candidates memorable to voters in a country where campaign laws are pretty restrictive.

theresa-may-lord-buckethead-united-kingdom-electionIn the UK we have some history of candidates changing their names, although few have tried this particular tactic. Lord Buckethead is one name that appeared on a ballot paper but probably wasn’t on the candidate’s birth certificate.

More controversial was the practice of spoof party names which closely mirrored those of real parties. In the 1994 European Elections, Richard Huggett stood as a Literal Democrat candidate for the Devon and East Plymouth seat, taking more votes than the Conservative Party margin over the Liberal Democrats, leading to a legal challenge by the Liberal Democrat candidate. The subsequent 1998 Registration of Political Parties Act ensured that this sort of thing couldn’t happen again in the future.

In other countries, similar tactics were also used. In the Russian Duma elections of 2003, newly elected President Vladimir Putin faced real challenges to his authority. His United Russia Party needed to win or he ran the risk of being a one term president. The main challengers were the Liberal Democrat Party of Russia (a fiercely nationalist party which, now known simply as LDPR, continues to contest elections under its leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky) and the Communist Party. New parties – Rodina and The Party of Russia’s Rebirth – were created, allegedly aiming to draw votes from both the Liberal Democrats and Communists.

UK may be forced to hold MEP elections if Theresa May’s deal defeated

The Guardian leads on the obvious – that when Theresa May’s Brexit deal gets voted down on Tuesday there will need to be an extension of time to allow the UK to come up with an alternative plan. The current Article 50 declaration runs out of time on March 30th and, if there is no agreement by then, the default option of a no deal Brexit automatically kicks in. Whilst it seemed like a good idea at the time to hold the Government’s (and MP’s) feet to the fire, it is now the general view that a no deal Brexit should only be an avenue taken by choice, not by absence of any positive decision to the contrary.

So if there is an extension (a period of a few months has been mentioned) the next real deadline for the EU is when new MEPs meet for the first time at the beginning of July. And if the UK is still a member, even if only temporarily, then it will need MEPs.

Theresa May might well believe that she can use a couple of extra months to get a slightly better deal. But will that be enough to get sufficient MPs on board or will we simply be kicking the can down the road? If May cannot win on Tuesday then she will have a maximum of one more chance at securing Parliamentary approval. She will want to make sure she has every chance to get it right this time. A delay of only two months won’t guarantee that, whilst six months or so just might.

But this is, fundamentally a blog about elections, so let’s return to that – and the thorny problem of the British MEPs.

The current batch expect to be out of a job after the end of March. And, as suggested above, an extension of a couple of months won’t be a problem logistically. But what if the UK remains a part of the EU – for whatever reason – after that.

There are a number of options:

  • The UK could do without any MEP representation
  • The current MEPs could carry on
  • New MEPs could be appointed rather than elected
  • New elections could be held

None of these options is exactly easy. For a member state to do without MEPs goes against the whole point of the EU. If the UK government could assert that it would only be for a few weeks then they might have some logic when the cost of new elections is considered. But I’m guessing this would not be looked upon favourably by the EU at a time when May will need as many favours as possible. I would also expect this option to lead to a court case from Remain supporters.

Keeping the current MEPs in post or appointing replacements is another short term solution, but is anti-democratic. It may also antagonise other countries and lead to court cases.

The only solution which is unlikely to lead to court cases and opposition within the EU is for the UK to fall into line with the other 27 countries and hold elections at the end of May. The Prime Minister will, of course, not even countenance this option until after she has been defeated on Tuesday. But after that she will be forced to. Her first instinct will be to say that new elections won’t be needed as she is sure that the deal will be done in time – whatever that deal is. But how much confidence will there be behind such a statement? But even a quick deal almost certainly means  a period after the beginning of July when the UK is part of the EU and will therefore need to have MEPs. 

That’s the technical side of things. What about the politics?

Neither of the two largest parties will want European Parliament elections. For both the Conservatives and Labour it will force them to have a clear position on EU membership that is out of step with most party members and voters. Jeremy Corbyn has been focussed exclusively on calling for a general election because he knows he can win on issues such as the NHS and jobs but that his position on the EU is unpopular among many Labour supporters. On the Conservative side, most members favour as hard a Brexit as possible and won’t be happy to campaign for new MEPs on the basis of the May deal.

The Lib Dems, SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru should be much more in favour of these elections. But campaigns cost money to parties as well as the Exchequer and the smaller parties may be hesitant about a full scale effort when those elected may well only be in place for a short while and a 2019 general election is also possible.

Perhaps the only party that will be happy about these elections would be UKIP. A party that has lost almost all of its media coverage in recent months would suddenly become relevant again, even if it loses MEPs compared with the last elections as the group has seen almost half of their MEPs defect. Re-engaging with the media, gaining vote share at a time when a general election is possible, electing new and loyal MEPs – UKIP will love it.

But what of the party’s erstwhile leader Nigel Farage? The ‘Face of Brexit’ has announced that he is no longer a member of UKIP after leader Gerard Batten appointed Stephen Yaxley-Lennon as an advisor. Surely, if there are to be new MEP elections then he will want to be part of it, especially as he is likely to be squeezed from most media if he is not a contestant. Talk of Farage joining the Conservatives has been doing the rounds, but that unlikely scenario becomes an impossibility if he has to then speak in support of something other than the hardest Brexit. So does he swallow his pride and rejoin UKIP or start a new party? My bet would be on the latter and this is likely to have the consequence of dragging some current Conservatives along with him.

So whilst the law might require Theresa May to hold elections to the European Parliament in May, there is no upside for her in such a move. She will fight the proposal with all her might even if the best chance of her securing something approximating to her deal is an extension of six months or so. Whether it is a court case or the ticking of the clock into the new European Parliament era, my prediction is that the UK will be forced to hold MEP elections either on or after the due date.

UPDATE: Nigel Farage has said he will indeed be looking for a new party and will stand if the UK participates in MEP elections this year.

False election expenses in Thanet land Conservative party worker with suspended jail time

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.