15 Oct 2014

Does Tory primary in Rochester breach spirit of legal spending limits?

BRITAIN-POLITICSIt’s a brilliant wheeze. Hold a big, hugely-publicised election by postal ballot among all the voters of Rochester and let them choose between two names as to who should be your candidate.

What could me more democratic? Give the voters their say? Show their voice matters? And there’s the massive, added advantage that whoever wins has promoted themselves on literature sent out by the party to every home in the constituency.

This isn’t the first time the Conservatives have held a proper primary election to pick a candidate for a Westminster election. They did so twice before the 2010 general election, and as a result Sarah Wollaston was picked in Totnes, and then Caroline Dinenage in Gosport. Tens of thousands of local voters took part in each selection process.

The Conservatives estimated that each of those primaries cost the party about £35,000 – not cheap. And not the sort of money one could spend on a regular basis for every selection contest. Most of it went on the postage costs of writing to every constituent, and then the cost of them mailing their completed ballots back. The 2009 primaries were considered a great success.

Such a success that the initial coalition agreement in May 2010 even included a commitment to state funding of 200 more primary elections, available for all parties, though not surprisingly that pledge was quietly dropped as spending cuts began to bite.

The other problem was that Sarah Wollaston, boosted by the extra personal mandate of winning her primary election, turned out to be an very rebellious and independent-minded MP, especially during the 2011 rows over the Health and Social Care Bill. As a result of her disobedient voting record David Cameron was heard to say that he’d never allow primary elections ever again.

On a personal note, I’ve long been attracted by the idea of primary contests. It’s always struck me as wrong that many of the real elections in British politics – what I call Britain’s “hidden elections” – are conducted amid such secrecy and often involve very few people. In most constituencies the MP is effectively picked by a small group of activists from the locally dominant party. And yet the winners often get a job for life.

Indeed, when I was 16, I had a letter printed in the Guardian advocating that Britain should adopt primary elections similar to those held by the major parties in America to pick their candidates not just in presidential elections, but every other major election.

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But there’s a major problem with what the Conservatives are doing in Rochester and Strood. Indeed, it comes up against another major interest of mine – legal spending limits in British elections – and the way in which our major parties have often abused such limits.

There are very good reasons for such limits. They’re designed to prevent parties “buying” an election, and to create more of a level playing field in elections between parties with lots of money and those who are short of funds.

And nowadays there are spending limits in by constituency contests, and also on what the parties can spend at a national level in the run-up to a general election. The latter are policed – in theory – by the Electoral Commission. And both locally and nationally parties are obliged to submit returns explaining how the money was spent, almost item by item.

The legal spending limit per party in a by-election in this country is £100,000, about four times as much as the limit in a general election constituency contest. But even that generous figure may not be enough, it seems.

In the Newark campaign this summer the Conservatives’ return shows that officially they spent just over £97,000, very close to the legal limit.

However, two of their main opponents in Newark – the Liberal Democrats and Ukip – told Channel 4 News on camera at the election count that they believed the Tories had spent a lot more than the legal limit. And since then a Labour source has estimated total Tory spending at around half a million pounds – money, he says which is beyond Labour could afford.

Beyond Labour now, maybe. But not in the past. In 1997 I made a film for BBC Newsnight in which I estimated that in two by-elections in the 1990s – Littleborough and Saddleworth in 1995, and Wirral South in 1997 – Labour spent hundreds of thousands, many times the legal limit (which was then a lot lower). And leading Liberal Democrats privately concede that in their by-election hey-day they regularly spent way above the spending limit when they thought they needed to.

My suspicion is that the £50,000 or so that the Conservatives will spend on their primary in Rochester is a lot more about promoting their candidate, rather than choosing one democratically. If it was about democracy, then voters would get a choice, surely, or more than two similar candidates (both are female local councillors)? There was a choice of three contenders in Totnes and Gosport, and four candidates in past so-called Tory primaries where the public were invited to turn up and vote at a meeting.

The other crucial difference is that the primaries in Totnes and Gosport were held many months before the general election in 2010. But this Conservative primary is being held right in the middle of the constituency campaign.

Cleverly, the letter from David Cameron to Rochester voters went out just before the writ was moved, so the Tories will no doubt argue that legally the cost cannot be included as part of their election spending.

Maybe. But it’s a very grey area. And I would argue the cost of the primary breaches the spirit of spending limits. But then those spending limits have long been a joke in by-election contests.

Labour won’t complain, I suspect. Nor Ukip. And it’s hard to complain about a move which seemingly makes the process more democratic.

Nor is it somehting that seems to interest the Electoral Commission. It’s up to parties to decide how they pick their candidates, they told me.

Which rather missed my point.

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