In ordering the Conservative Party to pay £70,000 for breaking the rules covering expenses in three by-elections and the last general election, the Electoral Commission called for stronger powers “otherwise there is a risk that some political parties might come to view the payment of these fines as a cost of doing business”.
Now is that really a risk? Or is it more accurate to say that is the situation we are already in.
Consider, if you will, what has happened here. The Commission found that the party broke the rules on repeated occasions in repeated elections.
The Conservative Party has pointed out that others have too, as if that somehow excuses its own perfidy. It doesn’t. It serves only to show how serious the problem is.
Ask yourself why it happened. It’s an easy enough question to answer. There are no silver and bronze medals in politics. While commentators might enjoy themselves poking through the fine details of results, the practical effect of coming second is no different from coming fifth.
If playing fast and loose with the rules helps to win you enough seats to get a working a majority in Parliament, and if you think you can get away with it, then rules be damned, especially if you only risk a slapped wrist upon getting found out after the event.
By-elections aren’t as important, but again, if you only risk being sent to bed early, well put Britain’s Got Talent on record would you? There’s a lot of political capital to be gained by bringing this one home, and if we can beat the other lot in terms of spending, we stand a good chance of beating them where it counts.
Don’t believe me? Just look at the recent EU referendum, in which the two Leave campaigns outspent Remain by a similar margin to the margin of victory.
We really ought to ask ourselves whether it's entirely healthy to stake the future of the country on an exercise pitting gazillionarie insurance man Arron Banks and his mates against Goldman Sachs and its mates. If you can’t see the problem with that however you voted, then we’re in a lot more trouble than even I thought.
Let’s not forget that the Commission is looking into the activities of the main Leave and Remain campaigners, although I should stress at this point neither Banks nor Goldman’s are involved.
If the lax rules in place are being flouted on top of that, then Houston, we have a problem.
The best of it is, the Tories nearly got away with it. You can almost hear the Scooby Doo style complaints at Conservative Central Office: “And we would have too if weren’t for those meddling kids from Channel 4 News.” It wasn’t the electoral regulator that exposed this.
The £70,000 fine it has imposed is apparently a record. Trouble is, it’s nothing that couldn’t be handled with the help of a cheque or two from wealthy donors.
Former Chancellor George Osborne makes that much for just five-and-half days work at City fund manager BlackRock. Perhaps the party Treasurer should give him a call?
Cheats never win, they used to say at school. Except that in this case, they did.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Cheating was for years part of the banking industry’s business model. It, too, used to get fined occasionally but what’s a fine when set against keeping the City happy and the executives’ bonuses flowing.
Analysts would collude in the practice, by letting the banks get away with kicking fines into a separate column when reporting their results. It was labelled “one offs”.
Things only started to change (a bit) when the Americans started throwing around billion dollar penalties like so much confetti. When the penalties run to 10 or even 11 industries, even bankers start to notice.
Dealing with political parties requires a different approach. Their primary purpose is not to make money but to win elections. That, then, is where the penalty should fall.
The police, and the CPS, are also involved in this one, but a successful prosecution looks like a long shot, which is a pity because the political class might start to notice were that to happen.
You’ll probably have heard people like Brexit Secretary David Davis banging on about the “Will of the People” in recent days. We’re in a pretty pickle when that, as expressed through elections, is apparently so easily being subverted. Democracy? How much cash have you got?Reuse content