20 Jan 2016

Will the Electoral Commission act over Tory Thanet expenses?

Did the Tories spent twice as much in defeating Nigel Farage in Thanet South last year as they were legally allowed under the rules?

Traditionally, election expense returns are among the great works of fiction in British politics. These days there are not just restrictions on constituency spending but also legal limits to what the parties can spend on their national campaigns. And today the Electoral Commission officially announced how much each of the major parties claimed to have spent nationally last May, along with receipts of everything they spent over £250 on their national work. The Conservatives say they spent £15.6 million in all, well below the £19 million national limit; Labour £12.1 million; the Lib Dems £3.5 million, Ukip £2.9 million, and the SNP £1.5 million.

But there are also local expenses limits for each candidate in each constituency. The trouble is, if local agents have problems fitting their spending within the legal constituency limit, then is there a temptation is to pass it off as a national expense instead? Is that what the Conservatives did in Thanet South?

Helpfully, the Electoral Commission has also published receipts for the parties national spending as well – you can peruse them all on their website.

What stood out for me was a series of four bills claimed by the Conservatives for the Royal Harbour Hotel in Ramsgate last spring, in the constituency Nigel Farage was hoping to win, and which saw a fiercely-contested campaign. The hotel bills total £14,213.18 for the five weeks of the short campaign, from 30 March to 7 May.

RAMSGATE, ENGLAND - MAY 08: UKIP leader Nigel Farage (2nd-L) looks on Alastair James Hay, better known as comedian 'Al Murray' who portrays an English pub landlord (2nd-R) congratulates Conservative Party candidate, Craig Mackinlay, after he was announced as the winner of the South Thanet constituency on May 8, 2015 in Ramsgate, England. After the United Kingdom went to the polls yesterday the Conservative party are confirmed as the winners of a closely fought general election which has returned David Cameron as Prime Minister with a slender majority for his party. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Yet the legal expense limit in Thanet South for that period was £15,016.38, and according to the Conservatives’ local expense return for the constituency, submitted last June, they spent £14,837 on the campaign, just £179 short of the legal limit.  If one included the hefty bills from the national figures for the Royal Ramsgate Hotel – and I suspect many experts would argue they should be – then the total to elect Craig Mackinlay as the MP comes to £29,050, almost twice the legal spending limit in that seat.

The hotel bills show that the Conservative had several rooms in the hotel throughout the campaign – on some night as many as five. The former Conservative press officer Henry McCrory was among those sent to work in Thanet South full-time.

A Conservative spokesman told Channel 4 News tonight: “All election expenses are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with Electoral Commission rules.” Apparently, the Conservatives argue that the staff they had staying at the Royal Harbour also worked in other constituencies as well. That seems improbable, since the nearest other serious marginal seat is about an hour’s drive away. In any case, the Electoral Commission rules make it clear that if an expense covers more than one seat then the cost should be apportioned between the local accounts for the various places. It would be interesting to know which other constituency campaigns the guests at the Royal Harbour Hotel went to help.

Nigel Farage’s former adviser Raheem Kassam, who helped run his Ukip campaign in Thanet South told me: “There’s something very suspicious about these expense claims. Even if they thought they were working on other constituencies with this money, they don’t appear to have followed the Electoral Commission rules in this.”

I don’t expect Ukip to make an official complaint, however. There’s a kind of gentlemen’s agreement among the political parties that they don’t complain about each other’s expense returns.

But election spending is a serious issue. There are spending limits for good reasons – to stop wealthy parties buying elections. And that could be more of a problem in the years ahead as Labour loses sources of funding, in part, it fears because of measures in the Trade Union bill going through Parliament.

This case is an important test for the Electoral Commission, which has long had a reputation for being pretty tame and toothless.  But the information about the Royal Harbour is up on their website. If they’re not going to examine and if necessary police party expense returns, then what’s the point of having rules and limits? And what’s the point of the Electoral Commission?

I suspect they’ll do nothing.

Tweets by @MichaelLCrick

9 reader comments

  1. John Nunn says:

    Given the swing in the seat, the closeness of the result, and it’s national significance, the Electorial Commission has a duty to act in this case. If the Conservatives effectively bought the seat, then corrective action must be seen to be undertaken.

    As for UKIP, they have a duty to the millions of people who voted for them to progress the matter.

  2. Duncan Tipler says:

    Surely if this information has been published on their website they would have had to scrutinise the figures. If the rules have been broken then another by-election should be held??? This act is so wrong for democracy. Matters not who won or would have won the seat – the fact is democracy hasn’t been served. .

  3. Mike Beckett says:

    So the Conservatives bought this election, they did what they wanted and payed lip service to the rules. In summary we have a broken antiquated political system and turning a blind eye won’t improve things. We need the Electoral Commission to take action where the Conservatives flout spending rules in Thanet South or Labour try to write the EdStone out of history by not declaring it in their expenses. If breeching election rules continues to go unpunished this encourages corruption, devalues the democratic mandate and goes against the principles of natural justice.

  4. Alan says:

    Impartiality isn’t a strength where an industry monitors itself. The Electoral Commission can hardly be described as independent. Most government watchdogs are toothless, e.g the ‘revolving door’ system, again monitored with such impartiality. Given the number of abuses of power within the life of parliament, why the focus on Thanet?

  5. Gary D says:

    Of course no action will result from any “investigation”. The Electoral Commission investigators will hold meetings, tick lots of boxes and write their pretty reports, but nothing will come out of this affair. It never does.

  6. SteveD says:

    One rule for one and one rule for the conservatives… hands up all those who are surprised ?

  7. JakeC says:

    In this instance, one would have to be naive bordering on the simple to believe that the Conservatives didn’t break the rules. I believe this was a matter of stop Nigel Farage at any cost. I have been a lifelong Conservative supporter but no longer. Nigel Farage owes it to the millions who voted for his party to challenge the Tories and urge the Electoral Commission to investigate.

  8. Bronabrown says:

    The Electoral Commissiom MUST take action. We live in a democracy; however, I begin to doubt it because my mother lived in Rotherham where the long-time residents were absolutely ignored on any subject for many many years. The sex scandal was the tip of the iceberg but complaints of any other nature were continually ignored. I was horrified, everyone was aware of it but nothing was done no natter how many letters or phone calls were made. Secondly, surely, something must be done regarding postal votes? Thirdly, had it not been for the polls predicting a hung Parluament am certain we would have had another UKIP MP. I’m rather disheartened.

  9. keith cowen says:

    the corrupt institution we call democracy in the united kingdom has fallen to the levels of a third world banana state, if the commission white washes this investigation there is no future for any of us and the rest of the world ridicules us as a laughing stock, on par with another corrupt institution not far from our shores called the e.u.

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