Why Craig Mackinlay is only partly right about the Electoral Commission

Craig Mackinlay, the Conservative MP who was cleared while a senior Conservative official was convicted over election expenses, has some very critical things to say about the Electoral Commission.

Writing for PoliticsHome after his acquittal, the Conservative MP said:

It is their responsibility to interpret the law into understandable guidance for candidates and agents and have extra-statutory authority to produce guidance and rules to assist the electoral process. During the trial, the prosecution spent days considering the status of personalised and party generic Correx boards. Conservative Party guidance recommends a 4x potential use. If such plastic posters survive defacement or vandalism that characterises many election campaigns, they could last for many years. The Prosecution and Electoral Commission disputed that view, long held by the party. The Electoral Commission publishes not one word of guidance as to how to account for such boards, how to deal with criminal damage and replacements, relying on the vacuous phrase ‘honest assessment’. To face potential criminal conviction with life-changing consequences on the back of scant guidance cannot be right.

That is but one of a range of details over which the Electoral Commission’s guidance is indeed unhelpful. Sometimes the Electoral Commission has played with being weirdly prescriptive. (I still remember the discussion I had with them about depreciation rules for party rosettes.) Often however it has also – as the above example illustrates – super-cautiously vague.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that lack of detailed knowledge in the Electoral Commission, an absence of knowledge bizarrely illustrated by its mistakes over pencils.

A much bigger problem, however, is one that MPs such as Craig Mackinlay share with the Electoral Commission. Even if no-one breaks the law, the rules limiting constituency expenditure have collapsed because so much can now be done that is charged against the much more generous national limit.

What used to be a tight limit on constituency expenditure set by the law is now in effect a massively generous limit set by the size of your bank account. (See the full details here.)

Neither MPs nor regulators have done anything so far other than sit on the sidelines, often apparently oblivious and always unresponsive to this collapse.


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2 responses to “Why Craig Mackinlay is only partly right about the Electoral Commission”

  1. It looks like following the American way. Those with the biggest bank account wins. That would more than likely be Tories. A democratic system hijacked by money . MPs and regulators probably do not recognise this creeping influence.

  2. The old saying “Set a thief to catch a thief” seems to be something that the Electoral Commission has never understood. If instead of talking to academics they talked instead to election agents from the various parties they would soon find out about the ways in which people attempt to avoid being restricted by election legislation. It wouldn’t even be a case of asking people to discose their own misdemeanours; we have plenty of experience of being on the end of both Tory and Labour ‘dirty tricks’ and they could likewise report on others.

    The only way properly to deal with election expenses is to set the national expenditure limits to be close to zero. A General Election is, after all, just 650 separate constituency elections held on the same day, so a genuine country-wide publicity event should be accounted for by dividing its cost equally between all the constituencies where the Party is standing. The cost of, say, busing volunteers into a particular constituency clearly should be accounted for under that constituency alone.

    Now, I would be the first to admit that this complicates the role of the election agent, but if we are to get back to elections that can not be won simply by throwing more money at the election (in the form of advertising and canvassing), the candidate and election agent have to have principal responsibility for all election campaign spending.

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