Back in March last year I wrote Constituency expense limits are dying off in the UK, but neither politicians nor the regulator will act, pointing out that:
In April 2005 thousands of voters living in marginal seats around the UK found letters about the political situation in their constituency from then Conservative Party leader Michael Howard hitting their doormats.
To the untrained eye, these were just another round of standard political direct mailshots. But they also signaled an important step in the death of constituency expense limits in the UK, a death triggered by mistake after Parliament changed the law in 2000 and didn’t fully realise what it was doing…
The problem was the introduction of national election expense limits. Logical in themselves given the previous absence of any national limits, the problem they came with was that parties can spend their ‘national’ limits on activities targeting specific voters in specific constituencies.
Moreover, the legal definition of what counted as ‘national’ expenditure emboldened campaigners to start treating activity that would previously have been considered as covered by constituency limits as, instead, falling within the national limits.
With national limits in the millions and constituency limits in the tens of thousands this was no minor matter (and all the more so with the huge national staff payroll bills exempted from national limits).
The Tories were the first to really push this – perfectly legal – feature of the rules in 2005, not only carrying out national activity that happened to be geographically concentrated but also making the national activity look darn local, with local references peppered in the expensive direct mail.
Things have got far worse since 2005 but nothing has been done because:
The regulator – the Electoral Commission – has consistently shown a striking lack of interest in the issue too, partly perhaps because many of those who advise it – including apparently well-credentialed political scientists – either haven’t noticed or don’t understand the implications of what has happened either.
Many of them are smart people, but when I raised the issue at a Chatham House style event a few years ago, civil servants and political scientists alike betrayed their lack of understanding of how the operation of constituency expense limits really operate – with even one expert whose views I’d normally pay a lot of attention and respect to illustrating that they simply didn’t know what the law now says.
That was part of the reason for me writing that post, and for me regularly raising this issue with people in the electoral administration and political science communities over the years.
Slowly, realisation about what has happened with the death of constituency expense limits has spread. By no means all down to me, although the growing pile of academic footnotes citing my article is a hopeful sign of its effect.
Now finally it looks like realisation is spreading much more widely, helped of course by Michael Crick’s recent investigations and questions about whether the Tories not only used legal loopholes but also broke the law.
Now there’s this too from the Daily Mirror:
Two dozen Tory MPs failed to declare thousands of pounds spent on their winning election campaigns in marginal seats, a Mirror investigation has found.
None of the 24 Conservative candidates whose constituencies were visited by the controversial RoadTrip battlebuses included the cost within their election budget locally.
As Jonathan Calder points out, nine of those 24 seats were Liberal Democrat.
It is, however, a much bigger issue than simply that. The old rules for controlling finance in our politics are dead, not because Parliament has voted to kill them off but because the regulator, pundits and Parliament for the best part of a decade failed to understand what was going on, failed to heed warnings and failed to act.
Whichever political party ends up in the media and regulatory firing line now, an important point to remember is that this is not simply a question of whether that party broke the law – important though that is – but it is also a question of a broken system which doesn’t work even if everyone does follow the law.