Jeremy Thorpe’s biggest contribution to British politics may well be his least well known

Jeremy Thorpe is one of those people for whom the volume of coverage does not beget breadth of coverage, for nearly all the coverage is drawn towards the one event. The one huge, tragic, bizarre, almost in the couldn’t-make-it-up category event that saw him on trial for conspiracy to murder.

No surprise this overshadows so much else of what he did. In those shadows, however, are perhaps his biggest contribution to British politics: the ending of the old election expenses regime that meant even national advertising at elections was avoided and setting the path towards the current ability of parties to – quite legally – pour six figure sums into marginal seats, sweeping away the old idea of tight limits on constituency expenditure.

As I wrote after interviewing him back in 2009, it was the Liberal Party that opened the way to huge national levels of expenditure on advertising and other campaigning at general elections:

One innovation [of Thorpe] in February 1974 was spending £10,000 on national advertising – a step which had never been taken before, by any party, at least during general election campaigns. There was some doubt over the legal position, but the Liberals justified it by dividing the total costs between all the constituency campaign expenses. In retrospect, did Thorpe regret opening this Pandora’s Box, where the other parties could heavily outspend the Lib Dems? Not at all – it would have happened at some point in any case, and pound for pound he believed the party benefited much more from its national advertising.

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

Constituency expense limits used to be a key part of UK election finance regulation, but they are now widely sidestepped and no-one is interested in fixing the rules. more

Although such national expenditure was capped with limits in 2000, those limits are high (tens of millions), generous in their narrow remit (excluding even the staffing costs of a General Election Planning Manager) and full of loopholes that undermine the idea of constituency expense limits.

The combination of the Pandora’s Box opened in 1974 and the way it was then legislated on in 2000 have resulted in the current situation where the amount that parties can spend in their chosen target seats is, in effect, unlimited.

Why would people be covering up election posters when the police are passing by?

At first sight, this cartoon from the 1950 general election (found in The British General Election of 1950) is rather bizarre: why would people be covering up election posters when the police are passing by? more

I’m not convinced by Thrope’s defence that if he hadn’t done it then, someone else would have. The very safeguard the Liberals used would have been hard for any major party to use given how many of their seats would otherwise spend up close to the limit. Parties had even gone to semi-farcical ends to keep within the old regime. We’ll never know for sure, of course. But we do know the sequence as it played out in the one version of life we get to sample started with the decision by Thorpe and the Liberals to open that Pandora’s box of expense rules.

One response to “Jeremy Thorpe’s biggest contribution to British politics may well be his least well known”

  1. Re your earlier piece on staff costs and election expenses (which I missed before) I agree for a further reason. As a party we totally underestimate the costs of running an election, especially at local level, as central costs aren’t factored in, and local parties certainly don’t compute them or recognise the monetary value. Local parties thus get a wholly false sense of running a successful election on a shoestring, and even strategically when we talk about the cost of, say, a by-election, we don’t include permanent central staff’s costs. In any other work setting this would happen. It’s crazy and distorting.

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