You’ve probably seen the growing story that the Tories seem to have consistently under-reported their election expenses. It’s a serious story because there are strict limits to election spending, designed to stop rich people buying an election. The amounts reported to the Electoral Commission were within those limits, but it seems that often when the Tories sent central resources into a seat to campaign, they didn’t take those into account. So the cost of election battle bus, hired for several thousand pounds a week and the accommodation costs of those driving it, were allegedly not declared as candidate spending in each constituency they visited.
Channel 4 have been reporting this story doggedly for a few weeks now and various police forces are now properly investigating these claims. Indeed, 51 constituencies (representing around 8% of the House of Commons) are under investigation. Details at the bottom of the page.
That figure looks very dramatic and it is. But two words of caution:
First, it doesn’t mean the Tories bought 51 seats. It’s obviously a bit more complicated than that. For instance, in nine of the 51, they didn’t actually win. If they overspent at the election, that’s still a very serious offence, but it’s not a matter of a sitting Tory MP being there fraudulently.
Another issue is that many of the seats that the Tories won in 2015 were already held by the Conservatives before the election. In other words, they might have won the seat anyway – though, let’s be cautious about that: why send in a battlebus if you don’t think there’s a battle? (Five of the seats under investigation that they held onto are among the 12 narrowest Tory majorities.) But still, in only 14 of those seats did the Tories unseat another party’s MP and install their own candidate. And then there was also Thanet South, where Nigel Farage fought a very strong campaign to become UKIP’s MP.
I should also say, of course, that these claims are being investigated. We can’t say yet whether serious fraud has been perpetrated. It may be that this is genuine error and oversight; it may be more sinister. It may be that the police conclude that only minor misdemeanours have been committed and the Tories get a slap on the wrist and that’s it; it may be that they are fined punitively. Who knows? Some people may go to prison. It may be that those elections are annulled and 51 by-elections have to be called.
Mind you, if the elections are annulled and re-run, there are various injustices that follow from that. Can everyone afford to run again? Campaigning costs time and energy and money. Will the original candidates be reimbursed and compensated for their costs?
And then there’s this. The last election was very close. The polls suggests that opinion is still pretty close but Jeremy Corbyn has faced a constant onslaught since he took over as Labour leader last September. Is it possible that if some of these seats were re-run, the Tories might actually gain seats that they didn’t win in 2015? That can’t be right can it? If so, an unscrupulous party could deliberately overspend at an election where the polls weren’t in their favour, hoping that they will have recovered in the polls by the time the fraud triggers a by-election. Would it not be more appropriate to have a red card system, whereby a party that commits fraud in a seat is banned from standing in that constituency for a couple of general elections?