Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

‘The Price of Democracy in the UK has Just Gone Up Massively: The Conservatives Once Again Set the Rules to Benefit Themselves’

Increasing the amount political parties can spend on general elections is another warning sign for British democracy

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Lord David Cameron in November 2023. Photo: Chris Jackson/PA/Alamy

Newsletter offer

Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.

The Government this week sneaked out an announcement increasing the amount that political parties can spend on general elections by around 80%. This major change in election rules cannot be challenged by opposition parties. It is the governing party setting the rules to benefit themselves.

In the six general elections since spending limits were introduced for national parties in 2000, a limit of approximately £20 million in the year before a general election has proved adequate. Only the Conservative Party has consistently come close to spending up to this limit.

In the last four general elections, the Conservatives have spent between 80% and 97% of the legal maximum.

In contrast, Labour has spent between 42% and 69% of the limit.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats spent between 25% and 36% of the limit until the 2019 General Election (when the party spent 79% of the limit fuelled by ant-Brexit donations).

Only one party is therefore likely to benefit substantially from increasing the maximum limit for party spending.

The change has not been supported by the Electoral Commission, the ‘watchdog’ powers of which have been watered-down by the Government.

Revealed: Britain’s Broken Election Laws Just Got Even Worse

The Government has made it even easier for dark money, foreign influence, and the proceeds of crime to bankroll British politics 

A House of Commons question from Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael revealed the Commission’s concerns in advance of the announcement. A member of the Commons committee overseeing the Commission, Labour MP Cat Smith, said: “The UK Government’s proposals to increase the spending limits and donation reporting thresholds represent a significant change to the UK’s political finance controls.

“The Commission’s research shows a long-term decline in public confidence in the political finance system. Any changes to spending or reporting thresholds must be supported by rigorous analysis, including on the likely impact on public confidence and transparency. 

“The Commission has not seen any evidence to support these changes. It is concerned that the proposals risk damaging the transparency of political donations and give significantly more scope for higher-spending parties to campaign.”

The Government’s new policy is a complete reversal of the pledges made by David Cameron when he became Prime Minister in 2010 to “take the big money out of politics”. All attempts to place a cap on the size of a donation from any one source since then have been resisted.

It will now be legally possible for a single billionaire to stump up the entire £36 million, or for six billionaires to pay £6 million each, and cover a party’s total general election spend at the national level.

Don’t miss a story

After a general election, it may never be known what price, and what positions, have been extracted in return for such donations.

UK citizens living overseas for longer than 15 years will also now be able to vote in next year’s general election – but should tax billionaire exiles be able to give millions to political parties?

If the kind of ‘financial fair play rules’ now being applied to football clubs were applied to political parties, then the Conservatives would be deducted dozens of seats – probably many more seats than those which give them their present majority to force through rule changes in their favour.

It is the equivalent of Manchester City winning the Premier League and then setting new rules now to allow it 15 players on the pitch, while its opponents have 10. 

If, and when, this Government is defeated, we must have fairer, and more democratic, rules in place. 

Lord Rennard is a Liberal Democrat peer in the House of Lords. He led for his party on the Political Parties, Elections, and Referendum Act (PPERA) of 2000 which introduced maximum limits for political parties to spend in the year before general elections

Written by

This article was filed under
, , ,