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The Conservatives Skirted Close to the Limits of Electoral Law to Keep Uxbridge and South Ruislip Tory

Why was the governing party so shy in Uxbridge?

The Stop Ulez Times – a potential election-winner in the Outer London seat kept by the Conservatives this month. Photo: Conservatives via clearpolitic5 on Twitter

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“Labour loses Uxbridge over ULEZ”. “Green campaigners fear UK policy backlash after ULEZ keeps Uxbridge Tory.” 

“ULEZ won Uxbridge, not the Conservatives.”

That last headline, a snapshot of the wall-to-wall coverage following Labour’s failure to take Uxbridge and South Ruislip last week, was more poignant than the author perhaps realised.

Sadiq Khan’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone expansion plans have been credited as the key issue that decided the by-election in Boris Johnson’s old seat.

Labour is reeling from its failure to capture the constituency – with the leadership turning on Mayor Khan and reportedly demanding changes to his pan-London clean air policy. 

Meanwhile, the government is considering ditching green policies off the back of the result, from the ban on gas boilers to energy efficiency requirements for landlords. 

The “Stop ULEZ Times” seems to have been the main campaign vehicle of one of the parties. You can also see campaign teams prominently brandishing on their leafleting runs. 

Conservative London mayoral candidate Susan Hall AM (second from left) campaigning in Uxbridge with Tory candidate Steve Tuckwell (now MP) before the by-election.

One political advertising expert believes the leaflets could have affected 500 votes in 30,000. In other words: the margin of victory for the Conservatives’ Steve Tuckwell. 

The Stop ULEZ Times looked like a local freesheet from a campaigning group. All fair enough. Until voters realise that this campaigning group is also known as the Conservative party. 

It seems the leaflet did not make particularly clear that, in fact, this was material from the governing party. 

Identifying who is putting out election publications – ‘any material which can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure the election of a candidate at an election’ – is required by law, under the Representation of the People Act 1983.

The required details are: (a) the name and address of the printer of the document; (b) the name and address of the promoter of the material; and (c) the name and address of any person on behalf of whom the material is being published (and who is not the promoter). 

Fake News: Conservatives Slammed for Party By-Election Leaflets Pretending to Be Local Newspapers

Tories are using “fake” local newspapers in all three by-elections

Most parties, as you would expect, put their party name on their leaflets. Except, one suspects, when their party is deeply unpopular nationally and they want to present their candidate as an independent voice. 

Because there is a big loophole in the law. There are no other legal requirements of the content of election material except that candidates ‘may not make or publish any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate’s personal character or conduct.’ 

Neither is there any other oversight over campaign materials. Regulating election leaflets is out the hands of both the Advertising Standards Authority and the Electoral Commission, based on the principle of free speech – and that political groups act like good chaps. 

There is no requirement to identify the political party, an “aberration” that has been maintained even in the 2022 Elections Act, which requires so-called imprints on digital material. Calls to close the party loophole were ignored, despite representations from a whole host of democracy groups. 

Rae Burdon, a spokesperson for Reform Political Advertising, tells Byline Times the rules are broken: “Nobody gives a fig who the printer is, ditto the promoter and a significant proportion of voters will not know the candidate’s name, in this case anyway not identified as the candidate.”

In this case, the Conservatives “took advantage” of the rules in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, they added.

Here for the record is the imprint from Stop Ulez Times:

Why does this moral – but not legal – sin of omission matter? In this by-election, the margin between victory and defeat was just 495 votes out of 30,000. 

Reform Political Advertising suggests that well over 500 voters were exposed to the fake newspaper – and might have been less inclined to vote for this anti-ULEZ ‘champion’ if their party was clearly identified in the material. 

The Conservatives have previous on this issue. All of their parliamentary by-election campaigns in July featured fake newspapers, as Byline Times revealed.

Lord Shaun Bailey of Partygate, in his bid for London Mayor in 2021, published a campaign leaflet that made a mockery of election rules. It featured a fake logo that purported to be from ‘City Hall’ – in other words, implying it was from the Greater London Authority, rather than being a party-political flyer.  

And in the 2019 General Election, CCHQ – Conservative party head office – rebranded itself as ‘Factcheck UK.’ 

These issues have received a bit of attention. But the negative publicity is quickly forgotten. 

Andrew Rawnsley from the Guardian reported that the campaign literature in Uxbridge implied that the ULEZ charge applied to all vehicles and dubbed various campaign tweets plain “lies”. 

However you spin it, what is clear is the Conservatives made “cynical, tawdry, misleading omissions, manipulating very poor election legislation”, Reform Political Advertising argues.

Who is responsible? That one’s easy. It’s the party that’s been in power and rewriting our election rules for a decade. Though you’d have to read between the lines to work that out.

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