News 28th Nov 2023

Making elections more expensive is a bad idea

Steve Goodrich

Head of Research and Investigations

Steve is Transparency International UK’s Head of Research and Investigations. He is responsible for managing TI-UK’s research unit and is our specialist on lobbying accountability, party funding and open governance. Before joining TI-UK in May 2015, Steve worked as a Senior Policy Adviser at the Electoral Commission. He has over five years’ experience working on political finance regulation, legislation and data.

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Given everything that’s going on in the world currently, one could be forgiven for missing some rather significant developments that haven’t made it into the headlines. Thanks to Seth Thevoz, I’ve recently become aware of a political bombshell that’s slipped below the radar. Read on, and I’ll tell you more.

To stop political parties from engaging in an ever-increasing arms race, there are limits on their expenditure in the year before a general election. Parliament introduced these rules in 2000 under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) – a landmark piece of legislation passed in the wake of the cash for questions scandal of the late 90s. The controls cover generic material and costs promoting the party e.g. ‘Vote Labour’, ‘Vote Conservative’ including everything from election leaflets to online ads. (although it excludes staff costs, which can be substantial).

For the larger parties, their limits are based on a formula calculated using the number of constituencies they’re contesting. Until recently, this would be £18.96 million for those standing candidates in all seats across Great Britain. Broadly, the purpose of these limits is to provide a ‘level ceiling’ on spend to prevent an insatiable appetite for seeking and accepting dubious donations to fund campaigns.[1]

There are separate local rules for candidates covering activities to promote themselves specifically (not the wider party), which have their origins in the late nineteenth century. These aim to provide a ‘level playing field’ between candidates, so they all have a relatively equal opportunity to promote their candidacy to constituents. These limits are based on a formula that varies depending on the type of constituency, number of electors, and how long Parliament has sat before dissolution. During a Parliament going more or less full-term, it limits local candidate spending to around £53,600ish for four months before polling day.[2]

Still with me? Good.

Combined, the old party and candidate limits were around £52.5million across Great Britain.

When Parliament passed PPERA, it included powers for the Secretary of State to vary some of the limits and reporting thresholds for parties and their candidates to reflect inflation. These have never been used. Until now. The snappily-titled ‘The Representation of the People (Variation of Election Expenses, Expenditure Limits and Donation etc. Thresholds) Order 2023’ has done just that, increasing the party limit to a total of around £34.1million and the candidate limits to a combined £41.8million. Yes, that’s a grand total of £75.9million (a 45% increase).

The ‘level ceiling’ has just been blown off and the ‘level playing field’ has been well and truly tipped.

These are astronomical sums. Amounts of money that are beyond the imagination of many average voters. And, curiously, at a time when new technologies might be reducing the cost of campaigning.

While Parliament may have given the Government permission to increase the limits like this, there are very good reasons why it should take this power back.

It’s been clear for some time that loose restrictions on political spending has led some parties to become overly reliant on a small number of wealthy donors. This reinforces the perception, and likely the reality, that money talks in our democracy. And talks loudly. No wonder many feel like they cannot influence their political system, and we haven’t yet ‘taken back control’.

Ending the UK’s big donor culture is crucial for reducing the risk of cash for favours; unblocking inertia on issues, like housing, where policy has remained stagnant for years; and preventing the further erosion of trust in politics, which poses an existential threat to our democracy.

Stronger controls on spending, alongside caps on how much any one donor can give are key parts of the solution.

As the next election approaches, I hope these issues will get more of the attention they deserve. We’ve seen from history that and time (and time and time) again, the pressure to raise large amounts of money results in trouble. These scandals severely undermine confidence in our democracy and the rule of law. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear history is about to repeat itself. Again.


[1] If you want to see the details, go to Part V, Schedule 8 and Schedule 9 PPERA. Pages 114-126 of the Committee on Standard’s in Public Life’s (CSPLs) fifth report also provide helpful context about the (slightly vague) underlying rationale for these rules.

[2] That’s the Representation of the People Act 1983 (RPA 1983) Part II and Schedule 4A for those so inclined.