Lord Rennard: Time to end the confusion and stop abuse of election expenditure rules
Former Liberal Democrat Director of Campaign & Elections Lord Rennard writes following the conclusion of the South Thanet court case. He argues the case shows that election laws now need to be clarified and says the Electoral Commission is currently consulting to see if secondary legislation could address these issues.
The recent verdicts at Southwark Crown Court concerning the Thanet South general election campaign in 2015 highlight the urgent need for our election laws to be clarified. It took the jury more than fifty hours of deliberation to convict the Conservative Party official concerned and acquit the Conservative MP, having earlier acquitted his election agent. All that is clear now is that the law is a mess and no longer fit for purpose. During the 2017 general election, a Conservative Party spokesperson said that, ‘There is a broad consensus that election law is fragmented, confused and unclear, with two different sets of legislation, and poor guidance from the Electoral Commission’.
I have raised in a number of debates the need for new legislation to make clear the distinction in a general election campaign between constituency expenditure (aimed at promoting the election of a candidate) and what must be defined as national party expenditure (unrelated to any constituency campaign). In response to my questions, the relevant Minister in the Lords, Lord Young of Cookham, accepted that, “we should stand back and look at the legislation to see whether we need greater clarity for all political parties in interpreting how that distinction should be made”. But he has so far resisted any commitment to act until after the completion of this court case.
The effects of the recent court rulings will be very problematic in another general election or in any parliamentary by-election before then. The costs, for example, of visits by party leaders and spokespeople, any accommodation and travel costs paid for them, and for party supporters, will have to be included in constituency expenditure limits. These costs alone may sometimes exceed what can be legally spent in a constituency. This was not, however, Parliament’s intention when major changes to election law were introduced by the Labour Government in 2000, and the consequences of this legislation have been the opposite of those intended.
Prior to this, and for over a hundred years since Gladstone’s government introduced the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act (1883), the principles concerning constituency spending limits were relatively clear. When I was a constituency election agent in 1983, no expenditure could be committed within that constituency without my authority. But the introduction of the Political Parties Elections and Referendum Act of 2000 changed all that. As my party’s national Campaigns Officer in 2001, I could authorise expenditure on behalf of the national party to be spent in individual constituencies, providing that it did not name the candidate. The only limit was the cash available. By 2015, the Conservative Party was exploiting this loophole by spending £100,000s in individual constituencies aimed at promoting the election of an individual Conservative candidate, whilst claiming that as national party expenditure it was not subject to constituency limits.
The introduction in 2000 of national spending limits (approximately £20m for a party contesting every seat in Great Britain) was aimed at creating a more level playing field in election campaigns. But it had the opposite effect as a great proportion of that sum could be concentrated on marginal seats to pay for things like direct mail letters from Party Leaders addressed personally to voters within those seats.
The legislative changes then have caused confusion and controversy. The conclusion of the Thanet South court case removes any excuse for failure to act. The Electoral Commission is currently consulting about how secondary legislation could address these issues. It must firmly recommend what needs to be done, and not just anticipate what any government might favour in its own party interest.
Lord Rennard is a former constituency agent, was the Liberal Democrats’ Director of Campaign & Elections (1989 – 2003) and Chief Executive (2003 – 2009) and is the author the political memoir ‘Winning Here’ (Biteback publications).