The Government has just decided to rush through some tax cuts and if that doesn’t tell you an election is imminent I don’t know what will. But it’s not the only clue. This year the government also increased the spending limits for parties and campaigners at elections
But why do we have spending limits? Why have they increased? Who benefits most? And what else do you need to know?
The UK has pretty strict rules about how money can be spent in elections to persuade voters, and about where that money can come from. The principles are basically that there should be a reasonable limit to the amount of money sloshed around at an election to try to reduce the advantage that richer candidates and parties have during elections, and that voters should know who is spending money to influence them.
Now, spending limits for political parties have only existed since 2000 (yes, really!) but haven’t been updated since 2009 with candidates’ spending limits last updated in 2014, so it’s not unreasonable to look at them again, particularly in light of recent inflation. Just looking at supermarket shelves, it’s obvious that £19.5 million won’t buy you as much as it used to, but an inflationary rise should (according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator) bring the limit up to just under £30 million. This government has ‘uprated’ the spending limit for political parties in an election year from £19,500,000 to a whopping £35,106,500.
The Tories have got closest to the old spending limit in the past, splashing out£18.6m at the 2017 election. However, in 2019 they spent £16.5m and at the last properly scheduled election in 2015 that wasn’t an unexpected snap poll they managed just £15.6m. Labour has consistently spent less, with £12m in 2019, £11m in 2017 and £12.3m in 2015.
Political parties have been raising big sums this year in preparation for the election, as Electoral Commission figures show the Conservatives have raised £22m so far this year, while Labour has brought in around £16m. Of course, not all of that money will necessarily be spent on election campaigning - the parties have running costs and probably want to keep some funds in the bank for after the election, but looking at these figures, we might assume it’s the Tories who stand to benefit most from any increase in spending limits. Convenient!
What about other spending limits?
The spending limit changes also apply to candidates standing to be MPs who will see the amount they’re allowed to spend in their own constituencies between the announcement of an election and polling day go up by about £10,000. That’s not a lot when you compare it to the huge national party limit but there’s 632 constituencies in Great Britain so that’s potentially an additional £6.3 million each party could spend through their candidates. But again, the cost of living crisis applies to the cost of leaflets as well.
Best for Britain is a non-party campaigner, sometimes called a ‘third party campaigner’, this describes any organisation or individual that spends money on campaigning at elections but doesn’t stand candidates to get elected themselves. Our spending limit in the year of an election will also be increasing from around £390,000 to £702,000, which seems only fair if we are to be heard during an election where the main parties will spend tens of millions.
What about donations?
Here’s where things get a bit less clear. Alongside increasing spending limits, the Government has decided to raise the threshold at which certain donations need to be reported. This means any campaigner or party that receives a donation over a certain amount has to declare it to the Electoral Commission and publish it on their website so anyone can see how much it was and who gave it to them. Raising the threshold means more donations won’t need to be reported so voters will have less transparency over who is funding the organisations trying to influence how they vote.
UK electoral law is complex and sometimes contradictory, so there are always exceptions and caveats but generally speaking donations over £1,500 have to be reported to the Electoral Commission. The Government has raised that to £2,230, which means even larger donations will now be essentially secret and anonymous.
That’s not all though, because that change to donation reporting thresholds doesn’t apply to non-party campaigners like Best for Britain. We will still be required to report all our donations over £1,500 - which isn’t a problem for us, we’re happy to continue to be transparent - but it does raise the question why campaigners are held to a higher standard of scrutiny than the parties who want to run the country.
The flimsy explanation provided by Michael Gove back in July when these changes were announced was that because the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd had not opted to increase the £1,500 threshold at which donations must be declared, campaign groups like us might get confused on what was allowed for different elections. The obvious solution to that conundrum would of course have been to leave the donation thresholds where they were across the UK for both parties and campaign groups
What about foreign money?
Just a week before changing the spending limits, the UK Government finally made good on its pledge to extend voting rights to the majority of UK citizens living overseas. Up to now, if you lived abroad for more than 15 years you lost your right to vote. That has now changed with the Elections Act 2022 coming into effect. Best for Britain has always been supportive of ending this practice which penalised people whose lives take them outside the UK for work, for love, for family.
However, the UK’s election finance rules are very clear about parties and campaigners not being allowed to use foreign money to finance election campaigns. This is to ensure that people who don’t live in this country, who may have less of a stake in what happens here or who may even be hostile to the UK, are less able to influence our democratic process. But the only rule for which individuals are allowed to make donations to political parties and campaigners is that the donor must be registered to vote. So all the newly registered (and nobody actually knows how many there are) overseas voters will be able to donate as well.
The increase in donation reporting thresholds also applies to ‘unincorporated associations’, or more simply, ‘a group of people who decide to do a thing together’. Unincorporated associations are allowed to make donations to political parties and election campaigners, but don’t need to publish the names of the individuals who make up the association and now can receive donations of up to £2,230 without anyone knowing where they have come from.
Politico reported in June that the Committee on Standards in Public Life — which advises the UK Government on ethical standards — identified unincorporated associations as a “route for foreign money to influence UK elections” and warned there is currently “no transparency” over the source of their funds. More than that, Politico also reported that “Despite tens of millions of pounds being donated through unincorporated associations in the last decade, the Electoral Commission’s register shows that only a single group has ever reported hitting the [...] threshold, requiring more disclosure.”
What does it all mean?
All of this, taken together, does not give the impression of a government keeping a tight rein on election security or the principle of transparency in election finance. The current party of government is, yet again, finding ways to reduce scrutiny of itself.
The Tories, who, generally speaking, have richer mates, can keep on fundraising and outspend others, while everyone will have to try and keep up. The UK needs a proper debate about the state of our electoral system, how we fairly and securely finance our election campaigns and how we make sure our elections are not being unduly influenced. Our electoral system faces threats from AI, extremism, voter apathy, and hostile foreign states, and these latest changes to election spending and donation rules won’t help with any of that. They seem designed to help one party
Now that you understand what we’re up against, please consider donating to support Best for Britain’s campaign. We are happy to accept donations of any size and as you now know, we will happily declare your donation if it’s over £1,500!