It’s very interesting that the Electoral Commission is saying the Conservative Party cannot be criticised for overspending on the 2015 election, based on nothing more than a guideline that has no legal force and that has never been tested in a UK court.
This Writer has been in contact with the Commission regarding concerns about Brecon and Radnorshire MP Chris Davies, whose campaign for election included a four-page ‘wraparound’ advert in local newspaper The Brecon and Radnor Express.
As reported previously on This Blog, I had raised concerns about the advert, which I did not believe could be described as ‘party’ spending as it could be seen as supporting only the Conservative candidate for Brecon and Radnorshire. A police officer later told me he had discussed the matter with the Electoral Commission and decided there was no case to answer, based on the advice he had received.
This is the advice he received [bolding mine]:
“The law is that any activity (that involves spending) that promotes a candidate is to be counted, and reported, as spending on behalf of the candidate. Party spending is anything not covered by the candidate controls and which promotes the party as an entity. The terminology is significant, because it differentiates between candidate and party rather than national and local.
“Not all spending in a constituency is however automatically candidate spending. If that were the case, then because every part of the country is in one of the 650 constituencies and virtually all campaigning therefore takes place in a constituency, there would be virtually no such thing as party spending.
“The law explicitly provides for party spending but does not define it as needing to be national, and therefore there is a need to interpret the law in a way that allows for party spending at a constituency level, but which distinguishes between that and candidate spending. As a very broad rule, we suggest that anything that mentions a candidate is highly likely to be candidate spending. We do not suggest that just because a candidate is not mentioned, it will not be candidate spending. Moving past the broad rule, the type of factors we would consider are, for example, whether the activity involved reference to the specific constituency, to locally specific issues, to other candidates in the constituency, and in the round whether the intent was to promote the individual candidate or the party. I emphasise that these are general principles, and any individual set of facts would of course need to be considered on its own merits.
“It follows therefore that where activity is reported as party campaigning rather than candidate, for there to be a basis to consider it as having been misreported, there would need to be evidence that it was in fact promoting a candidate. The fact that activity took place in a constituency or was targeted towards a constituency is not of itself evidence that it was candidate spending activity.
“We are aware of various wraparound advertisements placed by the Conservative Party in local newspapers around the country in the weeks before the election. We have received a number of examples, including the one in the Brecon and Radnor Express, and have reviewed these carefully.
“In the instances we have seen (and subject to there being any others we are not aware of) the advertising can reasonably be regarded as party campaign expenditure. The wrap around advertisements we have seen promote the party on a national level, referring to national policies, the national political landscape, and make no reference to candidates or local issues.”
This is saying that the Electoral Commission has made arbitrary value judgements about what constitutes party and candidate spending in this case – judgements which are not supported by the law – simply in order to justify a definition of party spending which is also not supported by the law.
This is not good enough. There are gravely serious issues at stake here and it is not enough to say, “We have decided that this cannot be included as candidate spending, based on nothing at all.”
It seems to me that this is a matter that must be tested in a court of law, with the test being equivalent to that in prosecutions for libel: In the opinion of right-thinking people generally, were the words in these wraparound adverts likely to be related to the Conservative candidate in their constituency?
Am I the only one who finds it odd that, when a four-page advert for the Conservative Party appears around a newspaper called the Brecon and Radnor Express, sold to people in Brecon and Radnorshire and reporting on politics only within the Brecon and Radnorshire constituency, the Electoral Commission tells us it is not supporting the Conservative candidate in Brecon and Radnorshire?
Oh, wait… no, I’m not – there were letters in two subsequent editions of that newspaper from people who felt the same way.
ADDITIONAL: I have written to the Electoral Commission demanding an investigation into this matter, with the possibility of prosecutions on charges of perverting the course of justice.
If we let them get away with this, they’ll treat it as precedent and do it again.
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