“Do we have to invite the extremist candidate?” “Can I veto the hustings by refusing to attend?” “Is the hustings meeting an election expense?” These are all common questions during general election campaigns, so here is your whistle-stop guide to what the various rules says.
Some organisations wish to be impartial, some are forced to be impartial. So does that mean if you are organising a local hustings you need to invite every candidate standing in that constituency? For a regional or national hustings does it mean you have to invite every party who is putting up a candidate in the election?
An organisation may have exact rules to cover this, but if it doesn’t then the Charity Commission’s guidance is sensible (or, if it is a charity, necessary) to follow:
- Charities are free to invite candidates and political party representatives to public meetings about issues on which the charity is campaigning, for example by inviting candidates to debate those issues, or to speak at a reception to launch the charity’s campaign. Trustees must not encourage support for any political party. One way of making sure that their charity does not do that may be to invite representatives from as wide a political spectrum as possible.
- However, inviting candidates from a wide spectrum can be difficult to achieve in practice. It does not mean that all parties have to be represented every time a charity does any work which engages with political parties. If a charity is uncomfortable engaging with a particular party, it should examine the reasons why. The trustees should make a decision based on whether such engagement would further or hinder the interests of the charity. For example, an event may be more manageable and more focused if all minority parties are excluded. If the charity is advised (for example by the police) that the presence of a particular candidate at an event will create a risk of disorder, that would be a good reason for not inviting them. It is also open to charities not to invite a representative from a political party which advocates policies which are in contravention of the charity’s objects, or whose presence or views are likely to alienate the charity’s supporters.
In other words, even if you are an impartial organisation governed by charity rules, you do not have to invite every single candidate or party. But you do have to have a good reason for not doing so.
UPDATE: by coincidence, the Electoral Commission issues new guidelines shortly after this post appeared. The following section has been updated to reflect the new guidance. The main issue, the ‘union loophole’, remains even after the updated guidance.
The other issue is one of election expenses. Regardless of who you invite (and non-charity, partisan bodies in particular may well wish to invite only a subset of candidates), does the costs of organising the hustings meeting count as an election expense?
Here is where the Electoral Commission’s guidance comes in – and note the difference between public meetings and those just for members of the organising body:
There are limits on how much can be spent by candidates on promoting their election. These limits include spending on public events which:
- the candidate attends, and
- promote electoral success for that candidate
If someone else has paid the costs of the event, this would be a donation to the candidate or candidates.
In our view, you will not be affected by these rules if:
- you have invited all the candidates in the constituency to attend – even if not all of them actually turn up, or
- your hustings is only open to members of your organisation
In other words, if – say – a trade union organises a hustings, only allows its members to attend and only invites the Labour Party candidate then it does not count as third party expenditure (no need for union to worry about amount of money spent on meeting) nor does it count against the Labour Party candidate’s expenses limit. That includes not just the direct costs of the meeting (e.g. hire of room) but also related costs. Quite how much publicity, for example, you could count as the cost of the hustings meeting is a question yet to be tested in the courts.
(For a public hustings, there are some circumstances in which you can avoid inviting all the candidates and still keep the costs of the event off the expenses records, e.g. if there are too many candidates for it to be practical to invite them all. Further details are in the Electoral Commission’s guidance.)
Personally, I think this wording leaves to large a loophole in the law for comfort, most obviously for trade unions but also for any mass membership organisation with a political intent. However, although I’ve discussed this issue with the Electoral Commission previously, the Commission has not called for the law in this area to be changed. Let’s hope a future election doesn’t make that look a mistake.