Remain and Leave activists arguing over the legitimacy of a 52-48 percent split over Europe, the Prime Minister set to change without a trip to the ballot box, let alone a vote outside of Westminster, and an internal fight within Labour as to whether or not Jeremy Corbyn should be allowed on the leadership ballot without having to regain parliamentary support. Questions about the nature of democracy in Britain has once again come to the fore front of the national debate. However, there is one sleeping giant that is yet to be fully awaken, one force that has grown slowly since the start of the millennium which needs urgent attention. Campaign Financing.
I do not believe the campaign to remain in the European Union was lost, as it has been increasingly suggested, because of Jeremy Corbyn lack luster efforts in the days and months running up to the EU referendum. Rather I believe that it is the latest manifestation of the unfair and unequal ways in which campaigns are funded under current campaign finance rules in the UK. Using examples from the four general elections of the past fifteen years (2001-2015) I will provide an insight into just why we need to take a serious look at campaign financing prior to the next general election.
All elections in the UK are commonly run on the principal that each person, who fall within the parameters of those we deem eligible (i.e. those above 18, who are not in prison or suffering from severe mental illness) has just one vote. It is a relatively reassuring thought that once every five years there is a day where whether you are struggling to make ends meet on benefits, or popping into the polling booth prior to jetting off on your fifth overseas holiday this year, we are all equal in our right to put a mark in a box.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of days before polling day. In the run up to elections and referendums where the majority of us are less than equal. These are dark days where money talks; it buys individuals and interest groups a direct line somewhere between politicians and the public, allowing anybody who can afford it a chance to broadcast their views far above the low level hum of the Twittersphere.
Dr Brian Howard May is a fascinating example of an individual trying to influence the outcome of an election by using their own personal wealth. Possibly better known as Freddy Mercury’s guitar playing chum from Queen, Brain May spent £151,448.00 pounds in the run up to the 2010 general election encouraging the electorate to use their votes to support candidates with pro-animal rights views.[i] This is a prime example of non-party campaign spending, which peaked in 2010 at £2970000, prior to a reform in 2014 that changed the levels of money that could be spent before having to register their expenditure. The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act (2014) actually raised the amount of money non-party campaigns could spend from 10,000 and 5,000 in England and Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland respectively to 20,000 and 10,000.[ii] This change means that there is a hell of a lot of money swashing about during elections that goes under the radar. had the same rules been around in 2010 May would not have had to register his expenditure.
Having spent so much money during the 2010 election, Brian May does not feature on the register for non-party campaigns in 2015. However, the ethically motivated high street cosmetic retailer Lush LTD certainly spent a lot of money. In the run up to polling day 2015 they spent just over the declaration of limit at £21,365.00.[iii] The receipts submitted to the electoral committee show invoices for the companies ‘votes for Animals’ campaign.[iv] A quick google search will take you directly to the campaigns website. Where, displayed prominently, in the center of the front page is a link to Common Decency, Brian May’s 2016 election project. Once again May encouraged voters to disregard the fact their constituency may be seen as safe, urging the electorate to unite behind decent Pro-animal rights, NHS and anti- trident candidates, in the hope that they could change the who represented them, and possibly the outcome of the election.
Brian May’s actions and his connections with Lush LTD are not that sinister. In fact, if anything they are admirable. They sought to revitalise an apathetic electorate by encouraging them to mobilise support for a broad coalition of politicians from different backgrounds, who they thought would supply representation for important and still under represented viewpoints. They also provide a more interesting story than other non-party campaigners with firm ideological connections to a particular party.
In 2010 Young Britons First, a now more or less defunct, youth organisation with extremely close ties to the Conservative party, who spent £ 117,297.91 publishing adverts nationally in Rupert Murdoch’s News international papers warning of the dangers of a hung parliament.[v] The point I’m trying to highlight here is that it is currently easy for political parties, with ideologically motivated wealthy supporters to way outspend competitors who don’t have similar relations with wealthy funders. For example a poltical party which threatens the interest of the wealthy with a higher level income tax. Whilst May spent more money, he didn’t lend his support to a single political entity, whereas Young Britons First did.
Stepping away from third-party campaign donations, since 2001 election, political party spending in elections has also changed in a way that negatively effects the quality of our democracy. If we discount the 2005 election, where spending on political advertising shot way outside the norm set by the 2001, 2010 and 2015 election, party spending at election time has slowly risen since the millennium. Spending on what I would classify as traditional campaign expenditure (i.e. the Manifesto and Political Broadcasting) has decreased in the last decade, whereas in elections that resulted in a one party majority spending on non-traditional expenditure like market research has increased.
Why is this so important, well the manifesto is the parties play book, it’s the ‘cast-iron’ commitments they state they will strive for if given an electoral majority. In short it’s what we as voters weigh the value of our vote against, and what we ultimately stand politicians up against when they ask for a second chance. However, I would suggest that a rise in market research is a move in the opposite direction. That in every general election since 2001, parties have run their campaign on increasingly limp liquid ideas, easily washed away when research says it’s no longer electable.
Ultimately this reduces politics and our democracy to a contest of aesthetics over substance. By focusing the electorates attention on things like who looks the best eating a bacon sandwich, to which the answer was more or less nobody, it allows a few powerful groups and individuals to influence the running of the country. When a term of five years’ governance is at stake, a period in which decisions taken effect not just your life, but the lives of those not yet born, the notion that the way in which a politician eats a sandwich could affect the elections outcome reduces our democracy to level of a two-bit comedy sketch.
Since the 2015 general election campaign financing has become a hot topic in British politics. Somewhat dwarfed by the EU referendum and its apocalyptic aftermath, the current Conservative majority in the commons is currently under investigation. Earlier this year Channel Four News uncovered evidence that suggests that the party failed to disclose the total cost of campaign busses used to transport party activists to and from marginal seats.[vi] As someone who has campaigned in an increasingly close seat, I can recall one Labour MP’s addressing a small crowds of activists telling them that their incessant pavement pounding during the run up to elections is the only things counteracting the money thrown at marginal seats by the conservatives. The electoral commissions investigations into Channel Fours claims are still on going, but whichever way their judgment lies the case further highlights the dangers our democracy faces from poorly regulated campaign finance.
The figures for the EU referendum have not yet been collated, but I would not be surprised to see a massive overspend on the Leave side, even when balanced against the government produced remain propaganda. At the end of the day one of the main reasons Leave won, was that it had money on its side. This meant that it could afford to send out vast amounts of mail, and promise voters the chance of more money for their fast disappearing symbols of national pride. Whereas, the Remain campaign had to rely on activists to wear down shoe leather delivering leaflets by hand, and struggle with an unsympathetic national print media dominated by established euro-skeptics.
It’s strikes me, from the little research that I’ve done into this subject, that campaign finance is an area in need of crucial reform. Campaign spending, as it operates at the moment damages our democracy, by allowing organisations and individuals to use vast amounts of unrecorded money, to move voters this way and that. It is at best hypocritical to say everybody gets the same chance, when very few of us have a spare million lying around to broadcast our views into the public domain. Whilst Twitter, podcasts and blogs are making small democratising waves, they are far less successful than a full page advert in the Sun, or a leaflet pushed through the door that cannot be ignored on its way to the recycling. If we really want to safe guard our democracy from becoming the play thing of wealthy interests, then something needs to be done to address the unfair advantage wealth has on our democracy.
[i] Electoral committee, Dr Brian Howard May 2010 General election spending declaration <http://search.electoralcommission.org.uk/English/Spending/SP0035753> Accessed on 12/07/16.
[ii] HM Government, The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act (2014), <http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2014/4/section/28/enacted> Accessed on 12/07/16.
[iii] Electoral Committee, LUSH LTD 2015 total campaign spending declaration, <http://search.electoralcommission.org.uk/Search/Spending?currentPage=1&rows=20&query=LUSH%20LTD&sort=TotalExpenditure&order=desc&tab=1&et=tp&evt=ukparliament&ev=445&optCols=ExpenseCategoryName&optCols=AmountInEngland&optCols=AmountInScotland&optCols=AmountInWales&optCols=AmountInNorthernIreland&optCols=DatePaid> Accessed on 12/07/16.
[v] Electoral Committee, Young Briton First 2010 election spending on hung parliament in the Times and The Sun, <http://search.electoralcommission.org.uk/English/Spending/SP0037074 ; http://search.electoralcommission.org.uk/English/Spending/SP0037077 ; http://search.electoralcommission.org.uk/English/Spending/SP0037076 ; http://search.electoralcommission.org.uk/English/Spending/SP0037075> Accessed on 12/07/16
[vi] Channel Four News, Election Expenses Exposed (2016), <http://www.channel4.com/news/election-expenses-exposed> Accessed on 12/07/16.