You’ve most likely seen evidence of political campaigning in your neighbours’ gardens, in your letterbox and on TV, but what are the rules surrounding political campaign spending? Can you simply flood the market with your propaganda and drown out the noise of the competition, or are there rules to keep the balance and allow for a fair, democratic choice? Today we look at how political campaign funding works, and why this could be a potentially dangerous period for politics (and voters).
The Electoral Commission controls the rules on political spending for all elections and referendums in the UK. We’ll be focusing on spending rules for the General Election. Spending is separated into two specific types: candidate spending and party campaign spending.
Party Campaign Spending
Party campaigning is primarily focused on presenting a political party’s policies; any details that involve the promotion of a particular candidate, whether for prime minister or local representative, usually fall under candidate spending (more on that below). There’s a regulated period when campaign spending limits and rules apply – this is often 365 days, with the period ending on election day. Activities included in campaign spending are advertising in any form, direct print marketing (leaflets and the like), market research, press conferences, events and all transportation needed to facilitate all activities mentioned above. Admin costs, like phone bills and website design, also factor into party campaign spending. Likewise, production costs for party election broadcasts must be included in campaign spending costs. Party campaign spending is limited to £30,000 for each constituency it contests at a general election. For the political parties, it would pay to put forth a candidate for each constituency to gain a larger campaign spending budget.
Unlike party campaign spending, candidate spending focuses on a particular candidate’s election. The time frame around spending begins the day after the date the individual officially became a candidate and ends on polling day. There’s a further time limit, called the short period, in which spending is further limited in the final weeks leading up to the election. Activities included in spending are much the same as campaign spending; advertising, direct marketing, transportation costs, public meetings, staff costs, accommodation and administrative costs. When deciding if the campaign should be registered under candidate or party campaign spending, those in charge of spending identify the principal message – an ad focused on the party policies with a short reminder of the local candidate’s name would fall under party campaign spending, for example. The limit for candidate spending is £8,700 plus 6 pence per registered voter in the borough plus 9 pence per registered voter in the county.
Where Does the Money Come From?
The simple answer is donations, although that leads to the question of ‘what exactly does your donation get you?’ There’s another question of fairness; the Conservative Party racked up £25m in donations, while the next biggest part, Labour, received just £9.5m. Is it a ‘pay-to-win’ system?
Another example of lack of funding fair play comes via the Brexit campaign. The designated official party of leaving the EU was given a £7m spending budget. To circumnavigate the cost, Vote Leave donated money to other campaign groups, with the same cause, to spend on social media advertising.
New Tech = New Issues
Rules surrounding election parity and transparency have existed since the nineteenth century. One could argue the party campaign spending is potentially skewed towards favouring the bigger parties (plus the distribution of party election broadcasts on TV essentially blocks new parties), and the donations system seems in need of regulation. These political grey areas have been around for some time, but there’s a new entrant to the field of constitutional controversy.
The rise of advertising via social platforms has meant the political discourse has moved online. A report by LSE said:
“Journalists at established news organisations used to be the main filter through which the public received news about political campaigns. Now, political parties and campaigners can reach potential voters directly via social media or other online services such as YouTube, and a great deal of political discussion takes place on these platforms.”
The analysers of information have been removed from the conversation; instead, unfiltered political opinion (and in some cases, false propaganda) is being posted directly online. The LSE report outlined how social media has made the propagation of false stories much easier, and it is in the interest of the social media platforms to allow this activity to continue as it makes money (through advertising revenue). The report also mentioned how the owners of the social media platforms have undue influence on what users see, and algorithms used in platforms like Facebook use the data provided by users to deliver content based on the interests they’ve expressed through likes, follows and groups etc. It’s a system designed to capture users’ attention by giving users more of what they like, instead of impartial, balanced information. The statistics back up such theories, with the LSE report adding that “38% of the posts by the three big right-wing Facebook pages published during the period analysed contained false or misleading information.”
Other issues around advertising online include the transparency of spending, which is less than the traditional advertising forms used in the past. Another potential issue highlighted by the LSE report is the dangers of targeting; with a little information, advertisers can identify voters based on which “divisive issues” that they may be receptive to. The sheer amount of data available to marketers has changed the advertising game considerably; the implications for politics is huge and changes certainly need to be made to ensure political campaigning is ethical.
Please note – the information presented in this article is correct as of the 2017 general election; rules surrounding political elections are subject to change in the future.