Dear Deputy Prime Minister,
I read your speech from Thursday to the Committee on Standards in Public Life with interest. It is good to see the progress being made in many areas of political reform, including the commitment made in the speech that, “in the New Year we will produce draft legislation to complete the modernisation of the House of Lords”.
Much else too in the speech was good to read, but I think you are missing an important issue about how the changes to election expense rules introduced for the 2010 general election are driving political parties in the wrong direction.
To put the issue briefly, we now have a long and short campaign period in which limits apply to constituency candidate election expenditure and those limits are relatively low. However, the national limits which also apply during that time are much more generous and there is no restriction on a party using its national limit in a very geographically concentrated way.
Therefore, a candidate in a marginal seat can do lots of extra campaigning beyond the constituency limit as long as it is of a form that can be charged against the party’s national limit.
What does this mean in practice? Well, for example it means that instead of a candidate writing a letter to local residents, candidates get their party leader to write to their residents instead.
Change who the letter is from and bingo, it no longer counts against the local limit – even if it still names the constituency and even if it urges people to vote for that candidate’s party.
The net result is that the rules are encouraging all parties to nationalise their election campaigns far more, talking less about local candidates and more about national leaders.
Of course, many voters were and will be interested to hear your views and those of other party leaders. But the overall encouragement the rules provide to nationalise campaigns, taking the emphasis away from the attributes of local candidates and further encouraging the presidentialisation of our politics, runs quite against what we should be doing to improve the health of our democracy. Moreover, the widespread ability to charge campaigning against the national limit greatly undermines the power and the point of the constituency limits.
We should be seeking greater focus on whether or not individuals, particularly incumbent MPs, are doing or would do a good job. As you said, we should also be tackling the influence of big money on elections.
Yet what is happening with election expenses is doing the opposite. Regrettably, my predictions from before the election have turned out to be right: amongst all parties we saw a shift towards ‘national’ campaigning. It’s legal, it’s what Parliament explicitly decided (because proposals to avoid this from David Heath MP were not adapted) but it is still something we should seek to change.
Both you and the Prime Minister will know just how many letters you each sent to voters, in marginal seats but charged against the national limit instead.
All that was only in the first election under these new rules, yet we know from previous rule changes how the competition between parties drives such changes further and further in successive rounds of elections.
You talk often in your speeches, including on Thursday, about thinking long term. Long term thinking on electoral rules requires tackling this trend that we saw building in 2010 before it is too late.