Friday, 13 May 2016

The cost of defending marginal seats

Investigations into Conservative MPs' (and the Conservative Party's) overspending on election expenses and false declarations of said election expenses in order to overspend without being caught are starting, after police forces wisely asked for extensions to investigate just as the statutory period was running out.

Which begs the question: How much can it cost to defend or take marginal seats or seats that could change hands for another reason?

A by-election will take place in the Tooting constituency next month, since Sadiq Khan has been sworn in as Mayor of London and has officially vacated his seat. Tooting has on several occasions in its recent history been a marginal constituency, including the two last general elections of 2010 and 2015. The Conservatives hoped to take Tooting at the last general election, but failed to do so in spite of being able to keep Labour's majority in check against Greater London's trend of moving towards Labour last year.

In his defence of Tooting, Sadiq Khan reportedly spent £31,732* during the course of the long campaign and short campaign (total: five months), and his Conservative challenger, Dan Watkins, spent £25,613 in his campaign, which was nevertheless a very expensive sum by any standard. Meanwhile, my Green colleague Esther Obiri-Darko finished third in Tooting in the same election with 2,201 votes despite only spending £148 on her campaign. Liberal Democrat candidate Phillip Ling spent nearly 20 times as much as Esther did there by comparison, but he polled only 2,107 votes in Tooting. UKIP candidate Przemek Skwirczynski, who finished bottom, spent £2055 although none of this was on the short campaign (the period between the dissolution of Parliament and polling day).

Of the seats that changed hands at the 2015 general election, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates generally spent at least £25,000 apiece during the total run of the long and short campaigns and sometimes as much as £45,000 and above (a prime example of this is when Paula Sherriff, who won Dewsbury from the Conservatives for Labour, declared a total of £47,120 worth of expenses over the course of her campaign); defending safe seats by comparison often cost less than £10,000 for the incumbent MP or the candidate selected to replace a retiring MP, and for the most part only around £11,000 (e.g. in Eric Pickles' defence of the very safe Conservative seat of Brentwood & Ongar).

Even though the spending limits and actual spending in UK elections are nowhere near the extravagances reported in US elections, winning a constituency, especially a rural one with a large geographical area such as Argyll & Bute, often involves spending more money than most people earn in a year (sometimes as much as two years' salary!), and the lack of an ability to reclaim any election expenses in the UK is a more serious problem in terms of giving all candidates a fair chance of winning even in constituencies likely to change hands. I believe the investigations into election expenses fraud by Conservative MPs will shine light on our current system itself and lead to reforms of it; I also believe it would be easier on all candidates if they were able to reclaim some of their election expenses provided they receive over 5% of the votes cast, a practice that already works well in Ireland and Canada, and if they did not have to pay a £500 deposit. Real democracy and real choice are more important than money.

*Amounts stated here are gathered from data of declared expenses returns, which can be found via this link:

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