There is one super-simple reform which, at a stroke, would significantly help clean-up the influence of money on British politics. It’s this: abolish the exemption for staff costs from national election expense limits.
The current exemption is bizarre. So bizarre that when I was working at Liberal Democrat HQ many years back, I took the precaution of getting the Electoral Commission to confirm in writing that their view too was that even the salary for the post of “General Election Planning Manager” didn’t count for general election expense limits.
The problem with the exemption isn’t only that it means there’s a huge loophole in the national expense limits. It also incentivises parties to behave in ways that are not good for the health of a democracy: encouraging heavily staffed structures on a central payroll and under control of the leader, because much of it then doesn’t count against the limit.
That not only is expensive in itself, but it also makes it much easier to spend even larger sums of money beyond the staff costs because other ways of spending money on a large scale (such as on newspaper advertising) requires staff time to make happen too.
Therefore cutting back the amount that can be spent on staff by including it in limits will have both a direct, and a leveraged indirect, impact on lowering the cost of politics and hence the demand for cash.
It would also bring political parties into line with the recent changes to ‘third party’ campaigning, which mean pressure groups and the like using staff to influence election results have to account for their cost. Alas, the reaction of that sector to being treated differently from parties in this respect was to demand their staff too are excluded rather than to have gone for the much more sensible course of arguing that parties should be treated the same too.
But just because so many campaigners got it wrong then is no reason not to get it right now. Especially with all the extra concerns over money and politics that are now back in the news.