On your marks, get set, go! Today marks the official start of the “long campaign” for the 2015 general election, which runs from now until the dissolution of Parliament. It’s a key date in the financial calendars of campaigns because from today the first limits are imposed by the Electoral Commission on individual spending in constituencies.
Financial limits are calculated by the number of seats a party contests – no wonder, then, that parties field candidates in as many seats as possible, even in what appear to be totally unwinnable contests. The rewards are great: a party which has candidates in all 650 seats is permitted to spend up to £19.5 million, which is £30,000 for each seat. But it is unlikely that parties will spread their resources evenly; they are much more likely to concentrate on the key marginals, such as those 50for15 are following.
From the 30th March until the election on the 7th May we will be in a period called the “short campaign,” when even greater financial restrictions apply. During the “short campaign”, a candidate can spend £8,700, plus 9p per voter in county constituencies and 6p per voter in borough seats. Borough constituencies are predominantly urban while county constituencies are predominantly rural. There is no definitive statutory criterion to distinguish between the two; the Boundary Commission for England has stated that, “as a general principle, where constituencies contain more than a small rural element they should normally be designated as county constituencies. Otherwise they should be designated as borough constituencies.”
Before the general election in 2001, there was no regulation of the role in political parties in their fundraising of money for elections. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (2000) created the provision for an independent Electoral Commission to scrutinise campaign spending by candidates and parties. The remit of the Commission was increased in the Political Parties and Elections Act (2009), which granted the Commission greater investigatory powers.
The 2015 general election is the first election where tighter controls have been placed on the amount of spending by groups that are not political parties. These restrictions were introduced in accordance with the 2014 Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act and means that any group that is not a party and intends to spend over £20,000 in England or over £10,000 in any of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland on regulated campaign activity must register to a Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists.
For some of the candidates in our 50 seats, the start of the “long campaign” marks a milestone and time to reflect on what they have achieved so far. Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon says, “I can’t believe that the start of long campaign has already arrived. Since my selection two years ago we have gone from strength to strength, topping the polls two years running in local elections and winning 10 contests against the Tories. I approach the election knowing we’re in a strong position but also that we have a long way still to go.”
Paul Scully, the Conservative candidate for Sutton and Cheam was more disparaging of the implementation of the “long campaign.” He tells 50for15, “It’s a confusing, bureaucratic law that even the Electoral Commission struggle to work out. The starting date has changed twice just in the last few weeks… Few people want to see the levels of campaign spending seen in the States and I’m absolutely in favour of greater transparency but these rules introduced before the 2010 election, smack of a government which was looking to be seen to be busy rather than making the rules of engagement clear for politicians and members of the public alike.”
To give some context, the combined spending of political parties in the 2010 general election was £31.1 million, of which 53% was accounted for by the Conservatives, Labour 25% and the Liberal Democrats 15%. Such amounts are small fry compared with America, where the 4.4 million people living in the State of Kentucky had over £34 million spent courting their votes in the 2014 Senate race alone, where the new Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell was re-elected.
The ramifications of entering the “long campaign” are not only financial; despite its name, today marks a closer step towards the election. And from what we’ve seen of the great sense of urgency for candidates campaigning in the tightest of marginals to persuade voters to support them, it seems that for them, the time between now and 7th May is anything but “long”.