A wider range of meetings at which people get to question Parliamentary candidates should be exempt from election expense limits according to new guidance from the Electoral Commission.
The Electoral Commission’s previous guidance was that costs related to hustings meetings did not need to feature in any of the individual candidate election expense returns if all the candidates for a constituency were invited. This was a welcome simplification of the previous position where many meeting organisers (partly for good reasons and partly for more debatable ones) believed that in practice they could only organise a hustings meeting if everyone agreed to attend. In other words, the Commission’s guidance was a good thing as it encouraged more public meetings.
The Electoral Commission now advises that in addition to this, a meeting does not count towards expenses if it is run by an organisation which only invites its own members to it. In these circumstances, not all the candidates need be invited and it will still be the case that the meeting does not count towards election expenses.
Although the original guidance was good and worked well, this new guidance open up a bit of a loophole. Most notably, a trade union could organise a meeting for its members to which only the Labour Party candidate and one fringe candidate is invited. It could publicise this meeting (including the names of the Labour Party and other candidate) to its members, without those costs having to count towards the Labour election expense limit or indeed being limited in any other way. For example, the trade union could phone all its members asking them to come and hear the Labour Party candidate (and fringe candidate) speak to them.
In some areas that would be a significant boost to the Labour candidate’s name recognition. It would also boost the fringe candidate, but if they are out of the running in the election that would still be net advantage to the Labour Party.
To the Commission’s credit, the initial version of their revised guidance suggested this loophole would work even if only the Labour Party candidate is invited, but when I raised the issue, they said they would change the guidance to say that at least two candidates must be invited to a meeting for it to count as a hustings.
That’s better, but it still leaves the possibility that foolishness, maliciousness or desperation will drive some people towards trying to use this loophole. As with all Electoral Commission guidance, what the guidance says is not necessarily what the courts would rule. However, the defence of “I was following the regulator’s official guidance” is a powerful one, particularly in any cases involving a jury.
Fingers crossed then.