Labour 'scrap plans to block wealthy donors' spending in marginal seats'

by Stephen Tall on February 7, 2009

From today’s Guardian:

Ministers have abandoned plans to block wealthy Tory donors such as Lord Ashcroft from spending huge sums of money in marginal seats between general elections. … The amendment scraps a planned “trigger” which would have meant that would have meant that, the moment a candidate was adopted, their campaign spending would have been subject to restrictions.

The Guardian understands ministers have been warned that the rules would be very difficult to police. In its place, the government has set a date – 55 months after the new parliament first sits – when new restrictions, set at £25,000 per candidate, per constituency, will apply for the remainder of the parliament (up to six months later).

If a general election is held less than 55 months after the last one – as it is often is – the £25,000 limit will kick in only once the election is called. The figure is more than double the present limit of £12,000, which applies from the moment a general election is called, normally around one month before polling day.

If it goes through as the government proposes, the measure will only come in to force if Gordon Brown decides not to call an election until the last moment, June next year, when it would start on New Year’s Day.

Why the change of heart? Has Labour’s Jack Straw really discovered that the law would be unworkable in practice (and since when did that stop this government from legislating)? Or has Labour realised it might hurt some if its seats which benefit from trade union largesse?

One thing’s for sure: democratic politics won’t thrive for as long as money skews the electoral market-place. It’s in interests of the Labour/Tory establishment to further entrench the current skewed system. It’s not in the interests of citizens.

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Reintroducing triggering would have achieved nothing accept get a few more candidates call themselves ‘local parliamentary spokesperson’ for a couple more months. It was an attempt by Labour to look like it was doing something while avoiding the real reform of caps on donations.

I’m pleased its gone, but will the Lords force caps back onto the agenda or will the Tories capitulate?

by James Graham on February 7, 2009 at 11:33 am. Reply #

The trigger method that Labour proposed was unworkable – and we told them so.

As was the previous scheme (initially backed by the Electoral Commission) to say that spending should be limited in the 4 months prior to polling day – but with nobody knowing (apart perhaps from the Prime-Minister) when polling day in a General Election would be.

Re-introducing the trigger (that was in effect abolished by accident in 2000) would not have stopped the Ashcroft paid for “national mailshots” being posted to marginal seats during a campaign. Perhaps the money paying for them actually should have been paid in British taxes – but that is another argument.

The Bill will shortly move to the Lords where we will (again) try to act to uphold the principles of the original (1883) legislation aimed at creating a more level playing field for constituency campaigning. At present there is effectively no limit (subject to available funds) on what a national party can spend promoting a national campaign in a particular constituency during or prior to a General Election. But there is a limit on what candidates (through their agents) can spend promoting themselves personally during the last formal part of the campaign. This is clearly not fair and discriminates against parties with more limited funds or who want to promote candidates more personally and explain the circumstances that apply in that constituency.

Chris

by Chris Rennard on February 7, 2009 at 12:23 pm. Reply #

I don’t understand why there isn’t an annual cap on party spending to eliminate all these loopholes: http://blog.matthewcain.co.uk/labour-mustnt-falter-on-party-funding/

by Matthew Cain on February 7, 2009 at 3:15 pm. Reply #

The short answer to that is there is a problem with how you define “party spending” and a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

For example, political parties involving the public in policy development through public meetings, etc. is surely a good thing we want to encourage. But what if spending on such things were included in a cap? Wouldn’t parties be forced to focus all their attention on electioneering, which gets them tangible seats?

I’m not saying it is an unsolveable problem, but it is a complex one.

by James Graham on February 7, 2009 at 3:29 pm. Reply #

James I think that’s a it of a red herring – the costs involved in such events are negligible. If you look at the total sum of cash spent by political parties in an area, all but a tiny fraction is spent on campaigning for elections.

by Mark Wright on February 7, 2009 at 5:54 pm. Reply #

In fact political parties spend a lot of money on activities other than direct election campaigning. Administration costs include recruiting, servicing and supporting members; there will be a team of people devoted to media and new media activities and parties will also employ reserachers and policy officers to help shape their message and to support their elected members hold the government to account. A national cap on election spending would have to take all that into account and yet it is difficult to disaggregate any of it from election work.

by Peter Black on February 7, 2009 at 7:01 pm. Reply #

Mark,

In essence: what Peter said. Like I said, I don’t think it is an impossible problem, but if you don’t want to end up with unintended consequences, it needs to be carefully thought about.

by James Graham on February 7, 2009 at 10:14 pm. Reply #

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