Did Labour’s Battlebus operation break the rules?
It’s now almost five months since we started investigating Conservative election expenses at the 2015 General Election, and in three big by-elections in 2014.
In that time we’ve uncovered a mountain of receipts showing almost £200,000 of seemingly undeclared or mis-declared campaign spending by the party.
That spending includes more than 2,000 nights of hotel accommodation, more than 1,000 of which were used to house volunteers on the famous Battlebus operation which took coach-loads of Tory campaigners into 29 marginal seats.
At this point 21 local constabularies have been granted an extra year by magistrates to complete any investigating they might need to do.
Yet despite the mounting evidence against the Conservative Party, a question keeps being asked of us: “Why haven’t you looked at Labour, or the Lib Dems?”
“Surely the Conservatives aren’t the only ones suspected of wrongdoing?” they say.
Works of fiction
I’ve been saying for years – and will no doubt say again – that election expenses are among the great works of fiction of British politics.
I first reported the issue for a rival channel back in 1997, when I accused Tony Blair and New Labour of greatly exceeding the expenses’ limits in several major by-elections, including Wirral South.
And both the old SDP and the Liberal Democrats were well-known in the 1980s and 1990s for leaving a lot of expenditure off their expenses returns.
I have even in the past given testimony about the issue to the Committee on Standards on Public Life.
Moreover, until recent years I’ve always thought the Tories were the most careful in sticking to the law.
The threat from Ukip changed all that two or three years ago. But I still firmly believe overall that this is not a problem confined to the Conservative Party.
In fact, Channel 4 News has asked politicians from all parties who’ve appeared on this show if their party has cooked the books – and we’ve highlighted many of those who have been curiously quiet.
By my reckoning, 17 of the 29 battleground seats visited by the Tory Battlebus activists were Conservative-Labour marginals. And 16 of the 17 were won by the Conservatives.
You’d think Labour would be seething. But instead, at the time of our revelations, hardly a single Labour politician we tried would come on air. We had to “empty chair” them – show an empty chair where Labour might have sat.
Something to hide then?
Labour too ran a similar Battlebus campaign, called Labour Express, that took activists to seats.
And they ran an operation manned by Labour Students – deploying at least four cars that zigzagged across the country to help out in key seats.
So why hasn’t Channel 4 News looked into them, and others?
Well, we have. And we are.
And this is what we’ve found about the Labour operation.
Let’s start with the Labour Students.
The political blogger Guido Fawkes has reported that Labour had four “battlebuses” manned by student volunteers which visited marginal seats to campaign for local candidates.
These “buses” reportedly visited 17 marginal constituencies between 24 March and election day.
We’ve learned, in fact, that these “buses” were really small people carriers, with about six activists in each vehicle.
Receipts declared by Labour show the “Brad bus”, for example, was a Seat Alhambra SE. Labour hired it for 49 days.
The cost was £37.95 a day. The “NUS bus” was, in fact, a Ford Galaxy which Labour hired for at least 24 days.
This was rather more expensive, at £51.75 a day. Channel 4 News has found that some of those Labour students were also put up in hotels at the party’s expense.
On the 15 April 2015, receipts show Joe Vinson and Amy Smith, two of the student activists, stayed one night at the Holiday Inn in Darlington. The cost of their two rooms was £157.20.
The following day they drove 80 miles to the target seat of Lancaster and Fleetwood, and spent the afternoon campaigning for the Labour candidate Cat Smith.
Later that night they drove on to Lincoln, another target marginal, where they joined two other Labour students, Poppy Wilkinson and Rob Young, and campaigned for Lucy Rigby.
All four volunteers were photographed the next day with the MP Liam Byrne, who tweeted a photo saying “campaigning for the brilliant @lucyrigby.”
None of the costs of the car, and the hotels, appear to have been declared by Cat Smith in Lancaster and Fleetwood. (Lancashire constabulary confirmed today to Channel 4 News that they have been granted a year-long extension to investigate Cat Smith’s election expenses.)
Nor do the costs appear to have been disclosed by Lucy Rigby on her expenses return in Lincoln.
We asked the Labour Party why these costs hadn’t been included in the local returns. They told us: “Candidate expense returns for the 2015 election included all items authorised by the election agent for use in the campaign.”
These costs are tiny, though, compared to the Conservative effort – almost trivial. The Labour cars cost about £50 each per day. The Conservative Battlebuses cost up to £400.
The Labour vehicles had up to six activists each. The Conservative coaches had up to 50.
We know the Labour Party spent £282.40 on hotel costs for student activists. We know the Conservatives, in contrast, spent £38,000 on accommodation for their Battlebus volunteers.
Labour told us that their activity was spread across several seats, was part of a nationally branded activity and correctly declared as national spend.
The Conservatives have made great play of the Labour Express campaign which they say is the same as their Battlebus operation.
Business minister Anna Soubry in particular was the first to break the political silence by openly comparing the Tory Battlebus to the Labour Express.
And it’s true that early in the campaign, the Labour MP Jon Ashworth hired a coach, and announced campaigning in three seats in London by this Labour Express.
Henceforth it seems any Labour vehicle carrying teams of campaigners around the country was hashtagged #labourexpress.
So, too, was a bus that carried party bigwig Tom Watson and celebrity Labour campaigner Eddie Izzard around the country.
Unlike the Tory campaign which was highly organised, well-funded and targeted, the Labour Express appears to have been a more ramshackle affair.
We’ve also charted how much the local candidate spent in each seat, and calculated whether by declaring the costs of the Labour Express as local spending, those candidates would have exceeded their local spending limit.
In every single seat we’ve looked at, the costs of the Labour Express would not have pushed the candidate over the limit, even if they had been declared in full as local spending.
Labour also categorically deny that any accommodation costs were incurred by the Labour Express. Although that doesn’t mean they didn’t incur such costs for other parts of their campaign.
Finally, when it came to the Tories campaigning for local candidates we have uncovered strong evidence. We have obtained emails about what the activists would do, and even the scripts they would use on the doorstep.
We have the documents produced by the Party’s research department briefing activists on the local issues. We can track the same individuals in the buses, in the hotels and on the ground locally campaigning.
With Labour Express that evidence is more thin on the ground.
There is not one continuous group of people.
Many more of those involved are local volunteers.
Apart from some photographs showing campaigners holding signs for individual candidates and the odd leaflet, there’s much less evidence of local campaigning for particular candidates.
Remember, its not a crime to campaign for a national party, or for a candidate.
The law simply says that any costs involved in promoting an individual candidate must be declared on their spending return.
It’s the scale and level of central organisation of the Conservative effort that makes their case different.
As the Electoral Commission told a court last week: “The Battlebus campaign actively initiated by the [Conservative] Party during the 2015 General Election was a new type of campaign.
Battlebuses have transported party leaders and senior colleagues around the country to campaign in many previous elections, and it is common for activists to campaign in constituencies other than their own.
However, the organised transportation of groups of activists, with overnight accommodation, subsistence and travel expenses met by the party is new.”
There are still huge questions about Labour’s spending.
Where did all the students stay?
Who was and wasn’t put up in hotels?
Has the party hidden any of its spending?
Did Labour candidates themselves cheat or break the rules by understating their local spending, or simply not declaring the full costs of their campaign?
One national newspaper has asked the public to seek the spending returns of their local Tory candidate and look for any anomalies.
And we would welcome any help from anyone who has information on Labour or any other party that they feel needs to be looked at.
— Alec James (@AlecJames93) April 17, 2015