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Conservatives Nearly Double Party Spending Cap Just Weeks Before Mayoral Elections

Rishi Sunak’s party will be able to put mega-donations from the likes of race-row donor Frank Hester to use – including against Sadiq Khan in London

Rishi Sunak is greeted by London mayoral candidate Susan Hall at a party event. Photo: Associated Press/Alamy

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The Conservative Government has dramatically hiked the maximum spending limit for local and mayoral election campaigns across England, just weeks before polling day. 

The changes have sparked allegations of attempting to buy votes as the party lags around 20 points behind Labour in the polls. Parties in London alone will now be able to inject an extra million pounds into their campaigns up to May 2, thanks to newly-revised expense limits passed with little fanfare last month. 

The Government’s decision to hike the expense limits by 81% means that mayoral candidates in London can now spend up to £760,000, up from the previous cap of £420,000, while parties with a full slate of candidates for the London Assembly can spend upwards of £2.24 million on Assembly candidates alone — a vast jump from the prior limit of £1.24 million. 

Last December, reports emerged of the Conservative party’s plans to raise £50 million within a year, prompting speculation that only the Conservatives would be able to utilise the new spending limits. For the General Election, the maximum spending cap has risen from around £19m to £36m. The Conservatives say they are increasing the limits in line with inflation since the turn of the millennium – but the timing and speed of the overhaul has drawn condemnation from the opposition.

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The significant changes to spending rules not only impact the London mayoral election – which sees Sadiq Khan face the hard-right Susan Hall – but 11 other metro-mayor elections across England, covering 44% of the English population. 

Critics argue that it opens the door for the Conservatives to unleash a spending spree in the crucial final weeks leading up to the election, leveraging the hefty donations of controversial figures like Frank Hester. The party faced calls to return his donations last month after recordings emerged of him making racist comments about black women including Diane Abbott MP. 

In a fundraising email over the weekend, the London Labour party told supporters: “Our online donations slowed significantly towards the end of March and…it doesn’t look like they’re picking back up. That’s the last thing we needed to happen. 

“Not only are we still trying to close the fundraising gap between us and the Tories in preparation for the general election, we’re fighting a by-election in Blackpool and local elections across England and Wales.

The message to Labour backers added: “We’re already on the backfoot when it comes to donations, so we absolutely cannot afford to let the situation get worse.

“The Tories will call an election this year. They’re scared of losing, so they will spend more money than they ever have to beat us.“

A 2011 report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended a £10,000 cap on all donations to tackle parties’ dependence on a handful of individuals — a recommendation that was ignored.

Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard said “no case” has been made for the scale and speed of the increase. “In London alone, more than £1 million extra can now be spent just weeks before polling day on May 2nd. This is all about desperate spending to seek re-election, and not about the democratic principle of a level playing field in politics,” the Lib Dem Lord said. 

“Those who make great profits from doing business with the Government feel able to afford very large donations to the Party in office.”

‘An Assault on Democracy’: Rishi Sunak Backs Bill to Overturn Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ Extension

The Conservatives are seeking to overturn the London Mayor’s flagship clean air scheme, despite being more than 20 points behind him in the race for City Hall.

Nationally, Lord Rennard estimates that parties will be permitted to spend around an extra £2m on the local elections this May following their changes last month. 

The Electoral Commission has called for significant changes to electoral law to be made at least six months in advance of elections, he added, noting: “The change allows the Tories to spend some of Frank Hester’s millions on the current Mayoral campaigns including London.  Some of Rishi Sunak’s survival hopes rest on this.” 

Conservative Levelling Up under-secretary Baroness Scott of Bybrook told the Lords: “Elections rely upon the ability of political parties, candidates and other campaigners to communicate their views so that voters can make an informed decision at the ballot box. If approved by Parliament, this statutory instrument completes the package of reforms the Government announced in July 2023 to uprate reserved and excepted party and candidate spending limits and donations thresholds. 

“This is a necessary action, as many of these statutory limits, which were set in absolute terms, have not been uprated in recent times. If we do not uprate them in line with inflation, it means that they continue to be lower in real terms, which has real impacts on campaigning.”

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