Electoral expenses allegations may have deep and game-changing implications

 

Last week we heard that 12 English police forces have sent papers to the CPS, in response to concerns about electoral expenses matters in up to 20  seats won by the Conservatives at the 2015 General Election. Four other forces, including Kent Police, which is investigating what happened during the election in the Thanet constituency, have yet to say where their investigations have led them.

Thanet was won by the Conservative’s Craig McKinley, much to the disappointment of UKIP’s candidate, Nigel Farage.

So, and allow me to indulge in pure wishful thinking, what would happen if the courts said that some or all of these contests must be re-run? Would that not go straight to the heart of the legitimacy of the Conservative government and any legislation passed since that administration was formed?

Now, the Conservatives might win all or most of the by-elections ordered by the courts (or the Electoral Commission). But they may not and Mrs May’s majority, authority and legitimacy could evaporate.

Where would that leave the legal position of the EU referendum Act and the legislation passed just this week to enable Article 50? Indeed, how legitimate would any of the government’s post-May 2015 legislative actions be? If it were to transpire that power was won only on the back of electoral malpractice the government would surely fall? Some Remain groups would quickly knock at the door of the Supreme Court seeking constitutional and legal direction and resolution.

As I say, wishful thinking, but you never know.

Another consequence of by-elections or court actions, or both, would be to again put political party funding on the front pages. Lord Tyler’s House of Lords efforts last Friday to, once and for all, sort out party funding might yet turn out to be electoral gold for the Liberal Democrats.

* Martin Roche is a member of Canterbury Liberal Democrats

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18 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 20th Mar '17 - 11:23am

    Lots of people don’t understand electoral law and don’t understand the word “expenses” in relation to elections. When the message is “Tories fiddle expenses” it will resonate as “more politicians fiddling their expenses” with all the implications that will have. Just further into the mire and grist for the likes of Aaron Banks.

    As for electoral law it’s all just a mess.

  • Malcolm Todd 20th Mar '17 - 12:45pm

    “the legal position of the EU referendum Act and the legislation passed just this week to enable Article 50” – would be completely unaffected. An Act is an Act is an Act, regardless of the legitimacy or otherwise of the individual members of parliament who enacted it.

  • Great article. While its true that most voters will have little sense of what the row is about, they will understand that The Party that forms The Government has broken The Law & a bunch of Byelections is a great opportunity for us.

  • Nonconformistradical 20th Mar '17 - 1:20pm

    @John
    That article – despite its heading – also reminds readers that Labour have also been fined – see https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/oct/25/labour-fined-20000-for-undeclared-election-spending-including-for-ed-stone

    Also as I understand it there is no question of the LibDems having spent above any election spending limits. My understanding of the Tory situation is that their having recorded as national expenditure items which ought to have been recorded as expenditure pertaining to campaigns in individual constituencies could mean that they actually broke constituency-level election spending limits in some cases.

  • Little Jackie Paper 20th Mar '17 - 1:40pm

    ‘If it were to transpire that power was won only on the back of electoral malpractice the government would surely fall?’

    I don’t understand this – even if the government did ‘fall’ (whatever that means) wouldn’t the Fixed Term Parliament Act mean we likely wouldn’t see another election?

    ‘Where would that leave the legal position of the EU referendum Act’ What was the majority for that Act?

    More generally I’ve tried to understand this issue and from the coverage I’ve seen the only thing I’m sure of in my mind is that, as someone else has said, the law does look like a bit of a mess.

  • Sue Sutherland 20th Mar '17 - 1:41pm

    Thanks for this Martin. I’ve been thinking along these lines myself but if a new government were formed as a result of by-elections I understand it would have to repeal the Acts, not that they would be null and void. I can’t see Labour doing this and, although I’m optimistic about our parties future, they would be the majority in a new government I think. Also I doubt if they’d rerun the Referendum under more sensible rules because some of their traditional voters might see that as a betrayal.
    However, there are rumours that the Tories are gearing up for a snap General election and also that they are very worried about the outcome of the present investigation. Perhaps May is thinking that it would be better to go for an early GE rather than have several by-elections because she’s doing so well in the polls at the moment?

  • Bill le Breton 20th Mar '17 - 3:32pm

    As Malcolm writes above, ““the legal position of the EU referendum Act and the legislation passed just this week to enable Article 50” – would be completely unaffected. An Act is an Act is an Act, regardless of the legitimacy or otherwise of the individual members of parliament who enacted it.”

    So, what is this article about?

    I was involved in a campaign which was awash with helpers aided financially and with local literature by the central Conservative Party . Had the Conservative campaign been within the expenses limit these would have been included in the local figures. They weren’t. Because they would have bust the limit.

    Liberal Democrats were the victims of a carefully targeted campaign.

    There could be fines. There could be legal action against the local agent. And there could be action against the candidate. And of course there might have been action against the Party’s national Treasurer.

    Which of these would be the greatest deterrent to future abuse?

    So far we know that the result of the election could arguably have been obtained at a cost of £70,000.

  • Richard Underhill 20th Mar '17 - 4:02pm

    Al Murray had a pint. Would he stand again?

  • Rebecca Taylor 20th Mar '17 - 4:39pm

    @John: the LibDems (and Labour) were fined for submitting incorrect election expenses, i.e. undeclared spending. In the LibDem case, “systematic failures to ensure rules were followed” were found. This is poor housekeeping and it shouldn’t have happened.

    However it differs from the Tories in that:

    – The LibDems fully cooperated with the Electoral Commission, whereas the Tories did not, forcing the EC to get court orders to access documents.

    – Even with the addition of undeclared spending, the LibDems have not overspent, unlike the Tories.

    – It is suggested (and is the basis of police investigations) that the Tories deliberately sought to include local campaign spend in national returns, and to conceal other local spending. This indicates that deliberate action was taken with the aim of hiding known overspend. That’s quite different to systemic failures to report spending that was within the rules (I’m not condoning such failures BTW).

    – Comments from disgruntled Conservative candidates/MPs indicate that they were instructed by Tory HQ to include local campaigning costs as national expenses. i.e. the action was orchestrated, not merely failure/carelessness.

  • Martin Roche 20th Mar '17 - 5:19pm

    One or two people have asked what the article is about. Well, I do make clear my wishful thinking; a dreamer’s dream. However, there is a very serious side. I cannot remember any precedent for so many seats being investigated by the police (I understand 2/3 already know there will be no action). Nothing like the scale has occurred since the days of the Rotten Boroughs.

    As others have pointed out, electoral law is not at all clear (funny that, given it was passed by politicians; who’d have thought?). Odds are all this will go away for the Tories, but we don’t know yet and if a significant number of contests had to be re-run, HMG would be in a very uncomfortable position. BTW, it hear Mrs May has ruled out a General Election, but have not had time to confirm. All Murray should definitely stand again and especially if the Thanet contest were to be re-run and Farage were to stand. The only problem is that as a pub landlord he might favour the Tories for the £1000 Hammond dropped off pub business rates.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Mar '17 - 5:26pm

    If the government fell there would be another general election and the Conservatives would become even stronger. As Tim Farron said in his speech yesterday:

    “We are not going to change (much) our destiny by using the courts, or through Parliamentary procedures, or with earnest speeches to think tanks and academics.”

    A poll today with ICM, probably an outlier, gives the Tories a 19% lead over Labour and UKIP and the Tories combined on 55%.

    Again, as Tim Farron says:

    “We are only going to change our destiny by winning the argument.”

    So by all means try to force some by-elections, but don’t get too excited about it, considering it could force a general election.

  • Malcolm Todd 20th Mar '17 - 5:32pm

    Eddie Sammon 20th Mar ’17 – 5:26pm
    “A poll today with ICM, probably an outlier, gives the Tories a 19% lead over Labour”
    – not much of an outlier at all, I’m afraid: http://www.electoralcalculus.co.uk/polls.html.

  • Martin Roche 20th Mar '17 - 6:20pm

    Just for clarity, I’m no proposing forcing any by-elections, by court action or any other means, simply speculating on the position the government might be in if police /CPS action or the Eldctoral Commission caused by-elections to be called. I do not for a second beleive there is any way of shortcutting defeating the Tories. There’s only one way and that’s to win public confidence.

  • If, as I suspect it was, Brexit was a rejection of feeling that elites would seize control no matter who was voted for then this would signal that the Tory party are culpable and recently so. It would demonstrate that leaving the EU won’t change that feeling of being left behind and moving towards an an even more Tory country is the wrong direction to go in. It would signal that reform within the UK is needed at the same time as reform within the EU.

    I’m not sure how much Tim Farron remembers of that final point as he marches around the country stating how highly the Lib Dems think of the EU.

  • Peter Watson 20th Mar '17 - 7:22pm

    @Malcolm Todd @Eddie Sammon “not much of an outlier at all, I’m afraid”
    Sadly, that same poll also gives Lib Dems a lower nett score for being perceived as “honest and reputable” (minus 14) than either the Conservatives (minus 7) or Labour (minus 11). A hangover from Coalition I presume.

  • There’s plenty to think about here. I have great sympathy for those tasked with ensuring that all spending is correctly logged and in keeping with the spirit and letter of the law, but it is incredibly important that a wealthy few aren’t allowed undue influence over a general election result.

    For me, the big take-away message is that it was the marginal getting all of the extra attention. The problem isn’t just that marginal get more spent on them during election campaigns, they get more spent on them during the course of a parliament. Hospitals are less likely to close in a marginal that the Government has an eye on, than in a safe seat and so on.

    The Electoral Reform Society has more to say on it.

    http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/blog/local-spending-matters-when-votes-arent-equal

  • Tsar Nicholas 21st Mar '17 - 9:14am

    Where will this leave us? I strongly suspect it will make Gina Miller and the Remoaners looking very foolish!

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