Local spending matters when votes aren't equal

16 Mar 2017

Today we have seen the consequences of a violation of the rules on campaign spending, one facet of the way political parties are funded. Yet the Electoral Commission’s fine of the Conservative party for breaching reporting rules on party spending highlights bigger issues in our political system. Campaign spending rules exist for a key reason. Britain’s first past the post electoral system rewards geography and not people. Safe seats where a party is rarely challenged contrast with marginal seats where two or more parties must fight for victory to win.

We illustrated this in our 2013 report, Penny for your Vote, where we showed that, at the 2010 election, 22 times as much had been spent on each voter in marginal Luton South, compared to the safe seat of Bootle. In the 50 most marginal seats, on average, £1.31 was spent per vote, in the 50 safest, £0.50.

This demonstrates the reality of British elections: an arms race in the marginal seats to focus and target money and resources.

It is to minimise this arms race that campaign spending rules exist, but if Britain had an electoral system which rewarded votes wherever they were cast instead of in such key seats then local spending would not be such an issue.

Campaign spending rules exist to maintain an equal playing field, vital in any democracy. They also exist to ensure transparency. But local spending rules are not the same thing as all the campaigning that affects a constituency. There is the national ‘air war’ in the media too and legally grey areas, such as campaigning on Facebook.

Even a seemingly national campaign event might be targeted at voters in marginal seats, through its design and the issues it highlights. Hence the need for a level playing field not just in campaign spending limits but in party funding too.

In our report Deal or No Deal we outlined the sense the British public have that party funding is corrupt and gives too much power to big donors, with 75% agreeing that “big donors have too much influence on political parties”. We outlined a package that could work to establish faith in party funding based on strengthened caps on campaign spending, caps on campaign donations and some public funding.

Breaking the rules should not be tolerated but the parties’ violations also expose a wider set of problems with how politics is organised and financed. Britain’s interweaving systems of campaign finance, voting and party funding are out of date with the realities of modern political campaigning. It’s time they were reformed and changed for the realities of the modern world.


2 Responses to Local spending matters when votes aren't equal

Nikki Clark 29 Mar 2017

Your article doesn't mention that the whole voting system is still set up against the poor anyway with the ridiculous deposits that are required in order to stand in parliamentary elections. It would be easy to deal with the issue of frivolous candidates by ensuring that people have to get nominations to stand like we do in smaller local elections. There is a whole lot more that needs to be done to make our political system work.. But lets face it - it was set up by the rich for the rich, the few times the workers of the country unite to make it better the rich just find ways of eroding those gains. It's all a club for the bosses..

Nikki Clark 29 Mar 2017

A lot more needs to be done

There is a lot more that needs to be done to make our voting system work - you don't mention the financial barrier to standing candidates - namely the depoist - it is always claimed that this is to stop 'frivolous' candidates, but actually what id does is stop those of us from poorer less priveleged backgrounds. This would be easily rectified by removing the deposit and making candidates collect nominations in order to stand like we do at local elections.

The bottom line is that this whole system was set up by the rich for the rich and any gains the rest of society makes in becoming more empowered in this system are usually eroded by the rich in no time at all... At the end of the day it's a bosses club... The fine that the electoral commission gave to the tories was pathetic and will not discourage any bad behaviour on their part because the fine wasn't significant enough to hurt them.

In a real democracy wealth, or a lack of it, would be no barrier to participation and give no political advantage.

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