The Conservatives and the Lib Dems are under fire over their election expense claims. Now Labour candidates have been accused of an election scandal of their own. But what exactly are the allegations against Labour – and how do they stack up?
The Conservatives are facing a storm of allegations – and police investigations – over their election expenses in the run-up to the 2015 general election. Among them is the accusation that dozens of Conservative MPs failed to declare costs associated with campaign buses, which transported activists across the country to campaign in marginal seats, in their local spending returns. Had they declared those costs, many of the candidates would have breached the strict spending cap that restricts candidate spending before elections.
Now the Labour party faces accusations that it did something similar.
The allegations against Labour
Right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes has named four Labour candidates who, he says, were visited by the Labour campaign bus, ‘Labour Express’, but failed to declare costs associated with it in their local spending returns: Rupa Huq, who won in Ealing Central and Acton; Paula Sherriff, who won in Dewsbury; Jamie Hanley, who lost in Pudsey; and Julia Tickridge, who lost in Weaver Vale.
He goes on to list an additional 13 Labour MPs who, he says, failed to declare a share of the £5,000 Labour spent on its ‘Pink Bus’ locally. And The Sun has published a list of nine constituencies where it says Labour Express activists campaigned but no transport was declared locally: Dewsbury (also cited by Guido Fawkes), Harrow West, Darwen, Bury North, Manchester Withington, Stevenage, Loughborough, Keighley and Nuneaton.
The Labour party says – just as the Conservative party has said of its own battle bus expenses – that the costs for the buses were rightly declared as part of the national party spend:
This was part of a nationally branded tour so the transport costs are rightly national spend. Labour’s spending is within the law and the rules set out by the Electoral Commission.
But the Electoral Commission says:
If a battle bus is used in a constituency and only promotes the national party and national policies then that should count as national party spend. If a battle bus promotes both the local candidate and national policies, then a portion of the cost of that bus should be allocated towards the candidate’s spending limit and a portion towards the party’s national spending limit.
There is little doubt that Labour Express visited marginal constituencies and campaigned for local candidates; just as the Conservative battle bus left a trail of evidence, so did Labour Express – and the Pink Bus. As such, if the Conservatives’ battle buses should have been declared as local spending, so too should Labour’s. And if the Conservative candidates should be held to account, so too should Labour candidates.
But there are crucial differences
However, Guido Fawkes also writes:
This is really no different to what the Tories were doing.
In fact, it is very different, on several crucial counts.
Firstly, unlike the Conservatives, it seems that none of the Labour candidates named – so far, at least – would have breached the campaign spending cap had they included the costs of the buses in their local expenses. Guido does accuse one Labour MP of this:
Jo Stevens had £10 left over to spend in the short campaign before reaching the legal limit, if she’d declared the pink bus she’d have gone over…
However, the pink bus apparently visited Jo Stevens in Cardiff in March, before the short campaign period had begun. And Channel 4 News, which looked at Labour spending in 19 seats, concluded that none of the candidates in those seats would have breached the spending limit.
This is important. It is an offence for candidates to deliberately breach spending limits – and 20 of the Conservative MPs accused by The Mirror of failing to declare the battle bus in their spending returns would have breached the spending cap, had they declared the costs of the bus and associated food and hotels locally. Among those who would have overspent, incidentally, are the Conservative MPs who beat Labour in Pudsey and Weaver Vale, two of the seats cited by Guido Fawkes.
Secondly, the costs for the buses constitute just one part of the expenses scandal engulfing the Conservatives. The party has also admitted to failing to declare £38,000 on accommodation costs for the battle bus campaigners, blaming an “administrative error”. Channel 4 says:
If that money had been declared on local candidates’ spending returns, then almost two dozen MPs would appear to have breached the local spending limits. Labour in contrast says it didn’t spend anything on hotel costs for volunteers and, so far, no evidence has emerged to contradict that.
Thirdly, there is hard evidence that the Conservatives spent more than the legal £100,000 limit in three key by-elections in the run-up to the 2015 general election. Not just by a few pounds, or by a few thousand pounds, but by well over £90,000 across the three elections. There is no suggestion that Labour overspent in those by-elections; in fact, the Channel 4 journalist leading the election expenses investigation, Michael Crick, has suggested that Labour barely bothered spending in those by-elections, knowing it would be outspent by the Conservatives.
And finally, most of the Conservative candidates embroiled in the scandal won their seats – and, as a result, the government’s parliamentary majority hangs in the balance. As election law barrister Greg Callus told C4 news:
The biggest difference of course is that ultimately, most of the Conservative candidates won. So if there are to be criminal convictions as a matter of election law, the by-elections we’ll be seeing will be – at least mostly – Conservative MPs who are losing their seats.
The implications for democracy
That the Labour election scandal is – so far, at least – dwarfed by the scope and scale of the Conservatives’ election scandal should not detract from the seriousness of the allegations against Labour. If we care about our democracy at all, we should care whenever electoral rules are broken – by any party. Those rules were introduced to maintain a level playing field between parties. If one wealthy party breaches them, it can effectively buy election victories. If several major parties breach them, as now appears to be the case, it points to a serious institutional abuse that raises serious questions about our democracy and could lock smaller parties out of power.
Nor though, should the allegations against Labour detract from the far more serious allegations made against the Conservatives. As my colleague James Wright has written: “If two groups commit fraud, they do not cancel each other out.” Rather, every allegation should be investigated seriously – and, if proven, by-elections must be called.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mentioned Chippenham as one of the constituencies visited by the battle bus. Michelle Donelan MP has since informed us that the battle bus did not visit her constituency and Wiltshire Police have closed their investigation. This article was updated at 1330 on 5 May 2017 to remove a call to action urging readers in Chippenham and other constituencies to contact their police forces.
Featured image via Channel 4 News/Youtube (screengrab).