Today we have seen the consequences of a violation of the rules on campaign spending, one facet of the way political parties are funded. Yet the Electoral Commission’s fine of the Conservative party for breaching reporting rules on party spending highlights bigger issues in our political system. Campaign spending rules exist for a key reason. Britain’s first past the post electoral system rewards geography and not people. Safe seats where a party is rarely challenged contrast with marginal seats where two or more parties must fight for victory to win.
We illustrated this in our 2013 report, Penny for your Vote, where we showed that, at the 2010 election, 22 times as much had been spent on each voter in marginal Luton South, compared to the safe seat of Bootle. In the 50 most marginal seats, on average, £1.31 was spent per vote, in the 50 safest, £0.50.
This demonstrates the reality of British elections: an arms race in the marginal seats to focus and target money and resources.
It is to minimise this arms race that campaign spending rules exist, but if Britain had an electoral system which rewarded votes wherever they were cast instead of in such key seats then local spending would not be such an issue.
Campaign spending rules exist to maintain an equal playing field, vital in any democracy. They also exist to ensure transparency. But local spending rules are not the same thing as all the campaigning that affects a constituency. There is the national ‘air war’ in the media too and legally grey areas, such as campaigning on Facebook.
Even a seemingly national campaign event might be targeted at voters in marginal seats, through its design and the issues it highlights. Hence the need for a level playing field not just in campaign spending limits but in party funding too.
In our report Deal or No Deal we outlined the sense the British public have that party funding is corrupt and gives too much power to big donors, with 75% agreeing that “big donors have too much influence on political parties”. We outlined a package that could work to establish faith in party funding based on strengthened caps on campaign spending, caps on campaign donations and some public funding.
Breaking the rules should not be tolerated but the parties’ violations also expose a wider set of problems with how politics is organised and financed. Britain’s interweaving systems of campaign finance, voting and party funding are out of date with the realities of modern political campaigning. It’s time they were reformed and changed for the realities of the modern world.