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Political

Constituency expense limits are dying off in the UK, but neither politicians nor the regulator will act

Michael Howard

I ran a shorter version of this in Liberal Democrat Newswire #59, but it’s such an important and neglected issue, it’s worth giving the story another airing.

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 signalled 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.

It started off with the best of intentions. The major reforms to the regulation of political finance introduced by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 were much needed and secured cross-party support. However, they also contained a deep flaw that has been eating away at one of the traditional centrepieces of British electoral financial control – tight constituency spending limits at general elections. Along with the ban on TV advertising these have framed the British approach to regulating elections – with a fair degree of success – for decades.

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, and without any action from police or regulator to inhibit this emboldened approach.

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 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. The one key omission was the names of their constituency candidates. Previously such local-heavy letters were avoided on the basis that they would count against constituency limits. With the new system introduced by the 2000 legislation, those hesitancies ended – and there was no counter-action from regulators, police or legislators to restrict such an approach.

Since then the competitive pressures of elections have pushed all the parties towards more and more concentration of national activities in marginal areas, increasingly undermining the impact of local limits and with almost no-one noticing.

What’s worse, not only are local limits being wrecked in this way, the slight holdout there still is – use national figures rather than the local candidate in order to lodge the expenses as ‘national’ – is the exact opposite of how politics should change to become healthier. Presidential-style concentration on national figures rather than the attributes of local candidates helps the lazy, incompetent and clueless local candidates slip through whilst also handicapping the bright, arduous and skilled constituency candidates.

David Heath MP, to his credit, did try to reform the law to remedy this – partly at my prompting – but without success. 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.

Now in 2015 we’re seeing the next stage in that death of the constituency limits: the new (since 2010) range of geo-targeting options available for online advertising that provide another fruitful source of ‘national’ activity which can be targeted on swing voters in marginal seats – and often at much greater cost-effectiveness than postage or phone calls.

The question isn’t whether constituency limits are dying off. It’s whether at some point the regulators, politician scientists and politicians will grasp the scale of what has followed the 2000 reforms and take action.

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