The Tories are trying to buy democracy

It’s something of an understatement to say electoral law isn’t the most exciting topic, and as everyone begins to wind down for the Christmas holidays, it’s hardly an issue many want to spend their time debating. But under this rather dry-sounding banner fall some very important laws. From who can vote (there was a time, not so long ago, when only land owners – all of whom were men – were allowed to cast their ballots, and women didn’t get the vote on equal terms to men until 1928) to what constitutes electoral fraud, electoral law dictates how the democratic system works in the UK.

A significant part of electoral law is how much parties can spend during a general election campaign. This has a palpable impact on how our democracy works because as the old saying goes – where there’s money, there’s power.

No one knows this better than the Tories.

David Cameron laughing

As the Observer has unearthed, over the summer the Conservatives saw it fit to drive through a law that changed how much parties can spend in the run-up to the general election. As they pursue an austerity agenda that systematically discriminates against poor people – in particular people of colour, disabled people and women – all the while conveniently ignoring the fact that wages aren’t rising in line with the cost of living, they’ve pushed party election spending limits from £26.5 million to £32.7 million. That’s a 23% increase.

Cameron and co. sneaked this past the Labour leadership, who could have called for a Parliamentary vote on the subject had they realised what was being done. And, perhaps what’s even more telling; the Conservatives made this decision despite receiving contrary advice from an independent body. The Electoral Commission – that sets the standards for elections – recommended against such an increase for the long campaign (starting on the 19th December). Instead, they advised on a £2.9million increase once the short campaign starts. The Tories entirely ignored this, or, if you want to give them the benefit of the doubt, interpreted it in their own way to mean they should double the number the Electoral Commission suggested and introduce this new law as soon as possible.

Although it’s received relatively little media attention, this is no small story. Only the Tories, backed by hedge funds and bankers, stand to benefit from this hike in spending limits; no other party has the kind of money they do. As the Labour Party have pointed out, this money could amount to an average increase in spending of £4900 (or five billboards) per key seat, for the majority of the short campaign. This means they can reach more voters through their campaigning and attempt to buy their way into office. Essentially, they’ve change the rules to suit them.

Election campaigns, both at a national and a local level (because this debate should also look at financial pressures on candidates themselves), are already costly enough. It’s right that a reasonable limit (say one supported by an independent body…) is put on the amount parties can spend, otherwise spending will quickly spiral. We only need to look to America, where it often tends to be only the very wealthy who can afford to run for office, to see what lifting limits does.

The Tories have orchestrated it so that in the coming months they will be able to throw all – or at least a substantial amount – of the money they’ve got into their campaign. This makes for an incredibly uneven playing field, and beyond the General Election, means the political process will be (more than it already is) about how much you can spend and how slick your campaign looks – as opposed to ideas and policies. And that doesn’t sound much like democracy at all.

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