Tuesday, 3 May 2016

How do we get from "battle buses" to fair elections?

My article in tomorrow’s Cornish Guardian newspaper looks at the “battle bus” scandal surrounding Scott Mann MP and others. The much-too-reasonable article will be as follows:

Politicians work hard to generate publicity to promote their own particular political party, their views and indeed themselves.

But increasingly, there are times when MPs and councillors wish they weren’t being featured in local newspapers, on radio and television and, of course, on social media.

I am sure that is how North Cornwall MP Scott Mann feels at the moment, with all the coverage about whether the cost of his 2015 General Election campaign exceeded the spending limit.

Readers of the Cornish Guardian will be aware that the Electoral Commission, and even the local police, are investigating complaints that “Mr Mann's declared election expenses did not portray an accurate picture of his spending.”

The reality is that limits were indeed set on what could be spent in individual constituency contests, but only in the period between 1st January 2015 and polling day in May 2015 and, during this period, political parties could also spend significant amounts of money on their so-called “national” campaigns.

Mr Mann’s problems arise from the visit of a so-called “battle bus” to the North Cornwall constituency, the costs of which were recorded as part of “national” expenditure. This is being challenged by political opponents and others, who believe that these expenses should have been declared locally.

In addressing this issue, I will not be seeking to embarrass Scott Mann as this is not a new phenomenon and the three largest political parties are all culpable in this regard. They have all had numerous “battle buses” in the past and I am sure they spent most of their time in key or marginal seats, but nonetheless recorded the expenditure as part of “national” campaigns.

There are plenty of similar examples of such practices, though I will give just two.

Political parties have often erected massive posters on billboards in prominent locations and I understand that this expenditure is often also deemed “non-local,” though the posters tend to appear in the seats that particular parties think they could win – and not across the UK as a whole.

It may surprise some readers of the Cornish Guardian that the costs of election poster-boards which do not have the name of the candidate on them – but simply proclaim “Conservative,” “Labour” or “Liberal Democrat” – have, on occasion, also been classed as “national” expenditure, even though the signs inevitably appear in greater numbers in existing or target seats.

This all shows how imaginatively the expenditure “returns” have been compiled for many years and, of course, for the last General Election there were no spending restrictions prior to January 2015.

During this time, certain political parties spent an absolute fortune and it wasn’t just the Tories. Labour’s millionaire candidate in Camborne and Redruth spent over £100,000 of his own money in the run-up to the period of restricted expenditure.

So, it is my view that this whole debate should be widened out and we should all be pushing for really far-reaching and more comprehensive reforms to better control election expenditure, in order to ensure fairer elections in the future.

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