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GE2017: shift attention from one by calling another?

GE2017: shift attention from one by calling another?

🕔20.Mar 2017

There was plenty of media speculation over the weekend about the possibility of Theresa May trumping George Osborne’s news headlines by calling an early General Election. But only one paper, I think, actually named a date – the Sunday Express, who reckoned it will be May 4th.

Apparently, the PM’s “closest allies talked about a May 4 ballot in the wake of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum on Scottish independence.” Mrs May herself has reportedly “so far resisted the idea of shoring up her mandate and increasing her narrow Commons majority”, BUT “the Tory election fraud probe could convince her to call an early poll.”

Given the number of times she’s explicitly rejected the idea, and that calling a General Election would be rather an odd way to deflect attention from the scandal that prompted you to call it, it must still be pretty unlikely – but there is a kind of logic. Besides, it’s a good reason to ensure that we’re all completely on top of the story of how the Conservatives, as some would put it, secured the last election for the knock-down price of £70,000.

By US standards, our national elections cost peanuts. Over there, candidates running for the Presidency and other federal offices alone have just spent $6.8 BILLION (£5.5 billion) – more than all Americans put together apparently spend annually not only on peanuts, but cereals, pet grooming and legal marijuana.

By comparison, our six major parties combined spent £37.6 million on the 2015 General Election campaign – £1.2 million of which, incidentally, went to Facebook. Moreover, contrary to what is often guessed, this is not a total that’s inexorably rising. That 2015 figure is nearly £5 million less than was spent in 2005.

Admittedly, the fall owes much to legislation. But almost certainly something also to the biggest spenders – the Conservatives (£15.6 million declared, he types carefully), and Labour (£12 million) – working out how to invest better, by identifying and ‘micro-targeting’ potential ‘swing voters’ or ‘waverers’ in their most winnable marginal constituencies.

In 2015, as it turned out, and as we’ve seen repeatedly demonstrated over the past few weeks, every single MP (or at least their vote) in every marginal seat would prove crucial – to the election result itself and to everything that’s happened since.

Theresa May’s Government currently has a working majority of 17 – enough to bully her Brexit Bill through without amendment, but not enough to secure the Chancellor’s NICs increases, her grammar school reforms, or several other bits of her growing agenda.

Just suppose the 10 seats the Conservatives most narrowly won from Labour had gone the other way – which all would have done with under a 1% vote swing from Conservative to Labour.

The chances are we’d not have Prime Minister May, probably not a Brexit Bill – not this one anyway – nor an untouchable Tory manifesto commitment not to raise anything that even smelt like a direct tax.

In a country so much of whose politics and government are amateurish in the worst sense of the word, it was hard not to be impressed by the professionalism – in the Premier League football sense of the term – that both major parties, but outstandingly the Conservatives, sought to bring to their 2015 campaigns in what they calculated to be their key marginals.

Both big parties had similar aims and ideas, but by general acknowledgement the Conservatives were (I was about to type ‘streets’, but decided in the present electoral context I wouldn’t) way ahead. One measure being that we know their  ‘long’ campaign was conceived and effectively launched – particularly the ‘under the radar’ elements – as early as October 2012 at the party’s annual conference here in Birmingham.

From that launch stemmed the key strategies. These included the 40/40 target seats – 40 Conservative-held seats, 40 held by Labour or the Lib Dems – identified not only by their apparent arithmetic vulnerability (hence no Edgbaston), but socio-economically: proportions of old, young, longstanding residents, newcomers, homeowners, renters, etc.

By the final weeks of the campaign, if you were a Conservative candidate in a seat outside the 40/40, you could forget any of the party’s other goodies. Like Team2015, the specially recruited army of potential activists – a database of up to 100,000 by Election Day – and RoadTrip2015, which would bus or train these blue recruits into the 40/40 constituencies to door-step campaign, as directed by the local candidate, with scripts and even hand-addressed letters tailored for individual voters.

And, of course, the famous – now infamous – Battlebuses, which are one of the problems the party has long had with the Electoral Commission, and now has with the futures of up to 20 of its MPs, following last week’s transfer of police files on their 2015 election spending returns to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

The problem is essentially the one touched on in that last-but-one paragraph – that the ultimate focus of the Conservatives’ professionally organised campaign was not just on carefully selected marginal seats, but on pre-identified individual voters in specific addresses in those seats.

In short, it was local campaigning, organised and delivered locally, which pretty obviously, at least to the Electoral Commission, should have been charged to the local candidates’ declared expenses – instead of the party trying to muddy the whole thing, pretending it was part of the national campaign and therefore chargeable to national expenses.

Don’t take my word for it. Channel 4 News, very largely responsible for the hard legwork involved in uncovering this whole election expenses scandal, had the Battlebus story first-hand from Conservative volunteers-turned-whistleblowers , who accused the party they’d worked for of “lying” and of being engaged in a “cover-up”.

Far from being the national event the party claims, “We worked for the local candidates and MPs to ensure that they won their seat and we were sent wherever they thought we would help. If people are saying, and the MPs concerned in these areas are saying, it was part of a greater expense nationally for the Conservatives, that is a lie and an obvious falsehood.”

The money involved is absolutely critical.  C4News estimates a cost of £2,460 for each seat visited, which the Electoral Commission rules say should have come out of each local candidate’s expenses, which will have been capped at generally between £12,000 and £15,000 for the 39 days before the election.

For mayoral candidates, in case you’re wondering – seeking to contact some 1.8 million voters across the seven West Midlands met boroughs – the equivalent spending cap during that short ‘official campaign’ period prior to May 4 (yes, that date again) will be, at least by my very rough calculations, about £110,000. Which has to cover all advertising, material sent to voters, public meetings, staff, accommodation, admin costs, AND transport.

So … even if the cost of the battlebuses could have been accommodated within an MP’s capped total, and though apparently assured by the national party that they would be acting legally, these BBBs – Battlebus Beneficiaries – now find themselves accused of making false declarations.

For reasons of its own, the Electoral Commission, in its detailed report into the Conservative Party’s “contraventions and offences” in respect of its campaign spending returns, chose not to reveal the names of the 29 constituencies visited by the Battlebus, but it’s hardly a state secret.

It made four constituency stops in the West Midlands: three eventually won by the respective Conservative candidates plus Wolverhampton SW, won excitingly, by just 801 votes, by the Labour challenger and therefore not relevant in this case and not detailed in my summary table.










I don’t want to comment here about any of the specific cases, except to note that the two constituencies that statistically looked relatively less vulnerable – Cannock Chase and Dudley South – had new candidates, following their predecessors’ decisions to stand down after a single term. Both constituencies lacked, therefore, what is usually regarded as a ‘first time incumbency bonus’, which may partly account for their featuring on the battlebus circuit.

As has been widely reported, the total fine – its highest ever – administered by the Commission to the Conservative Party for the violation of electoral law amounted to £70,000 – in respect of total offences amounting to nearly £276,000. These comprised approximately £105,000 for undeclared spending, £118,000 for unreported or incorrectly reported payments, and £53,000 for missing invoices.

This scandal, then, is about much more than the battlebuses, but their obvious importance is because of the direct involvement of the benefitting MPs whose police files are now with the CPS.

An early election, suggests the Sunday Express, would avoid any possible prosecution of MPs or their agents, election results being declared void, and conceivably a rash of by-elections neatly coinciding with Brexit negotiations drawing to a close.

David Cameron’s immediate reaction to the £70,000 fine was that the undeclared spending amounted to only around 0.6% of the Tories’ total campaign budget, so that’s OK, then – until possibly you try it on your own tax return.

Others, like Unlock Democracy, the all-party campaign for constitutional reform, see it differently: “If the penalty for overspending hundreds of thousands of pounds is a mere £70K, then parties are likely to see that as a price worth paying to buy a constituency or few”.

As you’ll gather, it’s a story without many positives – except that having a General Election coinciding with the metro mayoral elections would hugely increase the likely turnout in the latter, and meanwhile, I’d suggest, quite significantly affect the nature of the respective candidates’ campaigns.  Of which considerably more shortly.

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