Election spending rules aren’t fit for purpose

by Nick Kent | 17.05.2017

The news that one of the five biggest donors to last year’s Leave campaign is to offer funding to Tory candidates in constituencies that voted Brexit is only the latest example of the way rich men are influencing our politics in an anti-EU direction.

Jeremy Hosking, a multi-millionaire City asset manager, has offered 138 Tory candidates up to £5,000 each towards their election campaign because he wants to maximise the number of pro-Brexit MPs. Most of the target seats are held by Labour in the Midlands and the north of England where the constituency voted Leave in the referendum but the local MP voted Remain. Provided the donations are properly declared, this is entirely legal. Hosking previously gave over £1.5 million to Vote Leave.

This is not the first time that a wealthy individual has offered donations to Tory candidates to persuade them to take an anti-EU position. As long ago as 1997 Yorkshire businessman Paul Sykes, famous for having developed the Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield, offered Tory candidates donations if they opposed the UK joining the euro.

The generosity of Hosking and Sykes was more than matched in the referendum campaign when just five wealthy men provided £15 million of the £24 million received by Leave campaigns between February and June 2016. As Transparency International has shown, the problem of a small number of wealthy donors dominating our politics isn’t confined to anti-EU supporters; 95% of all donations in the referendum came from just 100 donors.

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It wasn’t meant to be like this. The Political Parties, Elections & Referendums Act 2000 sought to bring an end to big money dominating politics. The amount that could be spent in elections or referendums was capped and only donors on the electoral register or companies trading in the UK can donate.  

But from the beginning there have been loopholes. A group made up of members of one political party must check and declare larger donations. But those groups that claim to be “all-party” do not have to declare donations unless they participate in a particular election or referendum campaign. This loophole meant that Leave.eu could, perfectly legally, fund a call centre employing 40 people to contact voters before the referendum spending rules kicked in without having to identify its donors.

What’s more, the rules have not kept up with the growth of online campaigning. As the chief executive of the Electoral Commission has pointed out, there is a requirement for printed material to disclose its publisher in a campaign but that doesn’t apply to online material.

Far from being a people’s revolt against the elite, the Leave campaign was a putsch led by a wealthy clique who were campaigning in their own self-interest. It is ordinary people who have been hit by the increase in prices that has followed the collapse in sterling since the referendum.  While successful bankers will be able to move to Dublin or Frankfurt, car workers in Oxford or Sunderland will not be able to move to the continent in search of work if their factories close.

Britain’s electoral spending rules are not fit for purpose. In the interests of fairness, they need an overhaul.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

3 Responses to “Election spending rules aren’t fit for purpose”

  • What a shocking revelation. And I do not suppose these practices have been denounced in the UK popular press.How long will it be before these undemocratic practices are declared illegal? These practices are a direct threat to democracy in the UK, practices facilitated by the new technologies and the internet.

    • With the likes of Dacre and Murdoch distorting the facts what hope do we really have. The fact that the Tories recent election funding scandal has been quietly forgotten is a travesty. The Daily Mail claims to be this great crusader of people’s rights but turns a blind eye to the misdemeanours of their friends.

  • And to think it’s actually those who simply debate and question the wisdom of Brexit who’re being called anti-democratic!!!!