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‘If It Looks Like the Law Was Broken, Police Investigations Must Follow’: Elections Watchdog Receives Flood of Complaints Over ‘Phantom’ Reform Party Candidates

There has been a major public response to Byline Times’ report of ‘super-shy’ Reform UK parliamentary candidates – exposing concerning legal loopholes and the limits of the role of Electoral Commission

Nigel Farage and his fellow Reform UK MPs arrive at Westminster on 9 July 2024. Photo: Martin Dalton/Alamy

Do you have any information or concerns about ‘phantom’ Reform Party parliamentary candidates who stood in the 2024 General Election for Byline Times VoteWatch investigation?


The elections watchdog is facing a flood of complaints over allegations that Reform UK fielded swathes of super-anonymous ‘phantom candidates’ in the 2024 General Election – potentially netting the party hundreds of thousands of pounds in extra public cash, or ‘Short money’, and hiking its national spending limits. 

Voters across the country have raised concerns with the Electoral Commission about Reform parliamentary candidates with no online presence and blank website pages, leading to suspicions that some may not even exist. Byline Times has also received dozens of reports of Reform candidates who were nowhere to be found during the election. 

While ‘paper candidates’ – who stand little chance of winning and therefore do not campaign – are not uncommon in UK politics, it is rare for almost no information to be available about candidates online. 

Now, several high-profile democracy campaigners have called for an urgent investigation into the allegations of potential ‘fake’ candidates and clarity from both Reform and regulators. 

Parliamentary candidates are not required to show identification when applying to stand for election. But, under changes introduced by Boris Johnson‘s Government, voters are required to do so at the ballot box – raising concerns that the rules are stricter for voters than they are for parties. 


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A bizarre loophole in electoral law means that, even if a candidate does not exist, officials must accept their nomination “at face value” and are barred from investigating anything suspicious. 

The Electoral Commission admits it is powerless to investigate. 

Former Labour minister Dame Margaret Hodge told Byline Times: “How can it be right that a regular voter has to prove they are who they say they are, yet the candidates they are voting for do not? 

“This is a potential scandal, at a time when trust in our democracy is at an all-time low. So the fact that the Electoral Commission does not even have the proper powers to investigate is unfathomable.”

The controversy could have major financial implications.

Political parties receive £42.82 in public ‘Short money’ for every 200 votes gained per candidate. Standing more candidates therefore puts parties at a financial advantage, though they must also recoup the £500 deposit to run (not payable if the candidate receives more than 5% of the vote).  

Spending limits also increase for parties based on their number of candidates. Parties are entitled to spend £11,390 per candidate standing, plus eight to 12 pence per registered parliamentary elector, depending on the type of constituency. This equates to around £20,000 in local spending permitted per seat. 

But national spending limits are also set based on the number of candidates a party puts up. For every candidate a party puts forward, parties can spend an extra £54,000 nationally (this material is not allowed to mention local candidates or areas).  

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The normalisation of racism and dog-whistles will only get worse if the press continues to treat Farage as an entertaining figure representing the ‘real views’ of the British people – it must stop, writes Byline Times’ Editor

A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission – which was stripped of its powers to launch prosecutions by the last Government – said: “If a false statement was provided on nomination papers, it would be for the police rather than the Commission to investigate.”

At least one Byline Times reader – who contacted the newspaper as part of its VoteWatch project – is considering a police complaint over a Reform candidate who she suspects may not exist. She said: “There’s no online presence for her, and the Reform website just has a blank page and generic email address.”

Liverpool’s electoral services manager, Stephen Barker, confirmed that returning officers are legally barred from investigating candidates, saying that they “must not undertake any investigation or research into any candidate”.

David Howarth, who served as an electoral commissioner between 2020 and 2018, said: “This is an aspect of election law over which the Electoral Commission has no jurisdiction. It falls to the ordinary criminal justice system – the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) – but the record of the police is patchy, to say the least.”

Haworth, a former Liberal Democrat MP, added that “jurisdiction over this kind of case [should] be transferred to the Electoral Commission and the Commission [should] be supplied with sufficient resources to carry out investigations”.

For Tom Brake, former Liberal Democrat MP and director of Unlock Democracy, “clarity is needed on the status of all parliamentary candidates” and “if candidates weren’t who they seemed to be, and rules were broken, but not the law, the public has a right to know”. 

He told Byline Times: “If it looks as though the law was broken, police investigations must follow and prosecution by the CPS. And if the police and the CPS have no appetite for pursuing any case, it might be time to look again at the Electoral Commission’s prosecution powers.” 

Jolyon Maugham KC, director of public interest legal campaigners Good Law Project, said: “This isn’t just a story about troubling and potentially unlawful practice by the Reform party. It could also have real-life consequences: if there is a ghost Reform candidate whose nomination might plausibly have affected who was elected, there may need to be re-run in that seat.”


More Than 130 Reform Candidates Ignoring Electoral Commission Rules on Anonymous Donations

Candidates have raised tens of thousands for Nigel Farage’s party despite failing to explain how they will vet donors, amid claims the party doesn’t have ‘millionaire’ funders

Mark Kieran, CEO of democracy campaign group Open Britain, added: “At a time when public trust and confidence in our democracy is at an all-time low, even the suggestion that a political party might have fielded fake candidates is hugely damaging. Reform UK should move quickly to clarify the situation.”

Byline Times contacted Reform for comment.

A party source told the Guardian: “All our candidates are categorically real. Given the rush, a few are just paper candidates and didn’t campaign. Some people began as paper candidates but then did campaign, and one of these – James McMurdock in South Basildon and East Thurrock – ended up winning his seat.”

An Electoral Commission spokesperson said it is “aware of the claims” and “if a false statement was provided on nomination papers, it would be for the police rather than the Commission to investigate”.

They added: “For a candidate to be qualified to stand as an MP, they must meet the qualification criteria. The criteria includes being over 18 and a British, Irish or Commonwealth citizen. A candidate must also not be disqualified. A candidate must ensure they meet these criteria and declare as such on the nomination form.”

Byline Times will be further investigating this potential scandal, first covered by this newspaper, in the days ahead. 

This article was published in cooperation with Democracy for Sale

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