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Donations to parties in week 2 of the campaign

April 27, 2010 Leave a comment

In the second week of the campaign, political parties received over £3.8 million in donations reported to the Electoral Commission. The Conservatives reported 47 donations which added up to £2.2 million, Labour reported 14 donations coming to a total of £1.49 million, and Lib Dems received 3 donations totaling £120k. This is not the total donation income, but only those donations above the threshold for reporting to the central party (and doesn’t include donations to constituency parties or candidates).

Many of the big donors are familiar, such JCB Research’s £250k to the Conservative Party, which also received significant sums from a number of past individual donors. The Labour Party received £400k from Amshold Group Ltd, £200k from Sir Gulam Noon, and £500k from USDAW. The biggest Lib Dem donation, £95k, came from Alpha Healthcare Limited.

Given the post-debate attention given to the Lib Dems, it is surprising they did not receive more money. However, these figures do not include smaller donations that do not need to be disclosed, so the figures don’t show whether any of the parties have benefitted from a surge in small sums.

Are newspaper websites breaking election laws?

April 26, 2010 2 comments

Okay, it is an alarmist headline – but bear with me.

Under the election laws, third parties spending more than £10k in England, on material promoting a political party, in the twelve months prior to a general election, have to register with the Electoral Commission and are subject to a spending limit. Once Parliament has been dissolved, it is illegal to spend more than £500 on a material promoting or disparaging a particular candidate in an election.

The term ‘election material’ is defined broadly and goes beyond those materials that expressly name a party or candidate. The Electoral Commission interprets this provision to apply to material that aims to campaign for a party, group of candidates or policies (the purpose test), and which is made publicly available (the publicity test). If these tests are satisfied, material posted on a website will fall within the category of ‘election material’ and be subject to the third party spending regulations.

It is fairly obvious to anyone in the UK at the moment that newspapers are in the business of producing material that aims to influence the election campaign. They also spend over £10k in England in producing this content. So why don’t they have to register with the Electoral Commission and why aren’t they subject to a spending limit? The answer is simple: newspapers and broadcasters are exempted from controls on third party spending – s.87 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act states the controls don’t apply to:

the publication of any matter relating to an election, other than an advertisement, in—

(i)     a newspaper or periodical,

(ii)     a broadcast made by the British Broadcasting Corporation [by Sianel Pedwar Cymru or by the Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation], or

(iii)     a programme included in any service licensed under Part I or III of the Broadcasting Act 1990 or Part I or II of the Broadcasting Act 1996;

But what about material on a newspaper website? Much of the material published on the newspaper website appears in the printed paper, so that is arguably covered under the exemption set out above. But now much content appears on newspaper websites that does not appear in the printed paper. Many newspapers and magazines have free-standing websites that employ their own staff and engage in electoral advocacy. Whether this is covered by the exemption depends on what we mean by ‘in a newspaper or periodical.’

The exemption does not cover anything done by a newspaper or periodical. For example, if a newspaper company spent its funds on a one-off leaflet advocating the election of a particular party (separate from the ordinary paper) that would not fall under the exemption. Nor can the terms ‘newspaper or periodical’ simply be read to cover any website that posts material on a regular basis – that would blow a huge hole in the election laws.

The issue arises in other places in the law. For example, newspapers and periodicals are exempt from VAT – but does this extend to subscriptions to only the newspaper website? The guidance of the HMRC suggests that the VAT exemption applies only to printed materials – but tell me if I am wrong, do you pay VAT on a subscription to the FT online? Either way, this is not decisive for the purposes of election laws, but shows how the problem crops up elsewhere.

Of course, no one wants to see the newspapers gagged. The point is that there seems to be a legal grey area. I haven’t researched the specifics of newspaper websites thoroughly, so maybe there is an obvious answer which I am missing. If not, the current law has probably survived because it has yet to be tested or challenged.  Putting the specifics aside, the issue raises a broader point about the status of the exemption in relation to the online media. For example, should news providers that exist only online be subject to the exemption? This is something I mention in Chapter 8 of Democracy Distorted, and will need to be considered in the future.

Would the Lib Dems really lock Murdoch out of politics?

April 21, 2010 Leave a comment

David Yelland wrote on Monday that success for the Liberal Democrats ‘could lock Murdoch and the media elite out of UK politics.’ The thrust of the argument being that the News Corp has no strong connection with Clegg and his colleagues, so it would deprive Murdoch of his (perceived) access to Number 10:

The fact is these papers, and others, decided months ago that Cameron was going to win. They are now invested in his victory in the most undemocratic fashion. They have gone after the prime minister in a deeply personal way and until last week they were certain he was in their sights.

I hold no brief for Nick Clegg. But now, thanks to him – an ingenue with no media links whatsoever – things look very different, because now the powerless have a voice as well as the powerful.

It is a persuasive article. But would the Lib Dems in office really have that effect in the long-term? Instead, it might simply mean that after all the years of being ignored, the Liberal Democrats get a ticket to join the Murdoch circle. After the honeymoon and a period in office (coalition or otherwise), a new government will have to make some unpopular decisions and will get some bad press. It may then be hard to govern without some relationship with the biggest newspaper proprietor. In the long-term that may not be such a resounding victory for democracy.

It would all depend on what the Lib Dems do while in office and while they have the goodwill to stand up to Murdoch. It would only lock him and the media elite out of politics if they have a long-term media policy that will address the concentration of private media ownership. Looking at the Lib Dem manifesto, it does say the Party supports ‘a strong and diverse media, free from government interference and pressure is essential to a free and democratic society.’ It then adds that they will:

Ensure that the BBC remains strong, free from interference and securely funded, not least to provide impartial news, independent of political and commercial pressures. We will also ensure that the BBC does not undermine the viability of other media providers through unfair competition based on its public funding and dominant position.

While Murdoch might not like the first sentence, the second gives the Lib Dems some scope to court the News Corp, if it becomes necessary to do so.

Categories: Election, Media Tags: ,

Relativity and Clegg’s post debate momentum

April 18, 2010 Leave a comment

After the first debate, it seems that Nick Clegg has the momentum. But I’m not sure I get all the hype in the media. Even if he did do well, was it really that good? Enough to make him a contender for PM?

A single event can have a big impact on politics these days. Think back to David Cameron’s unscripted speech at the Conservative Party conference, which seemed to transform his fortunes. Maybe Nick Clegg is having a similar moment.

There might be lots of other explanations. For example, that it was the first time Nick Clegg had exposure as an equal to the other party leaders. The media may also be hyping the momentum because it makes a good story.

It also led to me think about the effects of what Dan Ariely calls ‘relativity.’ Ariely explains that when making choices, ‘people tend to focus on comparing things that are easily comparable – and avoid comparing things that cannot be compared easily.’ (see Predictably Irrational p.8) Ariely refers to a study in which people were given photographs of three faces (A, B and C). A and B look similar, but B is slightly better looking than the other. C looks different from the other two.  When asked which of the three is the better looking, more chose B. Ariely puts this down to the fact that people have a clear basis for comparison between A and B, which shows B to look better and this guides their choice.

Could this be going on in the leaders’ debates? Both Clegg and Cameron are similar in presentation. Both are polished, young and relaxed people. Both are going for the message of change. Brown is in a separate category, in terms of presentation. He is tense, serious and a master of detail. So people have a clearer basis to compare Cameron and Clegg. Assuming that Clegg did perform better in the debate, then his success is exaggerated by the more obvious comparison with Cameron. This may have guided people’s answers when pollsters asked who ‘won’ the debate.

Of course, this is very speculative and a tad half-baked on my part. It is only one of several possible explanations. It is also based on presentation, rather than comparisons of the policy positions. It assumes that Clegg did outperform Cameron. But it is a theory which maybe explains how a competent performance seemed to generate a ‘win’ in the post-debate polls.

Categories: Election Tags:

Will the leaders’ debates have an impact on the campaign

April 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Will the leaders’ debates make a difference? Expectations are high (I keep hearing the word ‘historic’) and it is frequently said that the debates will potentially change the campaign. Maybe they will – it depends on what is said by Cameron, Clegg and Brown. But I think it is getting hyped and we shouldn’t expect too much.

If there are no gaffes and all the party leaders stay true to form, then the impact of the debate will depend on the audience’s prior views. If you are already a fan of Cameron, then you will view his performance favourably (and the same goes with the other leaders). This seemed to be the case in the Darling/Cable/Osborne debate a couple of weeks ago.

In his book on US campaigns, Presidential Debates, Alan Schroeder warns against mythologizing the impact of the debates. He gives examples where the candidates’ performance in the debates had seemingly little impact. Dan Quayle’s performance in the vice presidential debate in 1988 is often cited as disastrous, but it did not stop Bush/Quayle from winning. Schroeder also cites a bad performance by Reagan in a debate in 1984 as having little impact on his fortunes. While his performance may have improved in later debates, that example shows that it is possible to recover from ‘losing’ in one of the exchanges. It all depends on the other factors in the campaign (and how far the performance in the debate ties in with the salient issues).

Schroeder also notes how the debates are a campaign event, with endless analysis on strategy in the media. The audience approaches the debates not just as an exchange of arguments, but with all these background factors in mind, looking for slip-ups and looking to confirm their existing views.

The influence of the debates is not just on the audience watching as it is broadcast, but on the media coverage of the debates. The coverage will tell us who ‘won’ the debate (and in the absence of any gaffes or knock-out blows, this may be something open to debate). The media will choose which bits will be repeated over and over again. This partly depends on the candidates providing an appropriate soundbite and avoiding a brief blunder – but it also depends on which clips or soundbites get picked up upon. For example, much is now made of Al Gore’s sighing in the 2000 campaign. But there were other clips, like Bush’s smirk while talking about his record on the death penalty in Texas, which (while noted) did not get as much coverage in the media. Much of the lasting impact of the debate will depend on the post-match spinning and analysis.

None of this is to downplay the importance of the debates. They offer a new format for seeing the leaders and how they interact. It can provide a lasting image of a politician. The debates provide a focal point for the national coverage where people in all constituencies share the same agenda. They will also reach an audience beyond political junkies including those less engaged by politics.

Given the limits of party election broadcasts and mediated interviews, it is a new tool for political communication. But if all stick to the preparation, it will probably give a view of the leaders that we are already familiar with.

Categories: Election, Media

Stricter spending controls in the ‘short’ general election campaign

April 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Once Parliament is dissolved, the official campaign period begins. This means stricter controls on party funding and campaign spending.

– Candidates are subject to lower spending limits from the day after dissolution – candidates can only spend £7,150 (plus 7p for each registered voter in county constituencies and 5p per registered voter in borough constituencies). Candidates have already been subject to a separate limit for the ‘long campaign’ – but, rather confusingly, a new set of limits will apply once the ‘short campaign’ starts.

– Third parties (those other than candidates or political parties) can spend only £500 on materials to campaign for or against a particular candidate (see s.75 of the Representation of the People Act). So if a person spends money on a website that is used to promote or oppose a candidate between now and the election, it will fall within this limit – though not sure how many would come close to that amount.

– Political parties will have to provide the Electoral Commission with weekly reports of donations received (s.63 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000). Once published by the Electoral Commission (check their website each week), these figures will provide a regular feed of  party funding stories, which will no doubt continue to make headlines.

Don’t forget that it is still an illegal practice to make or publish ‘any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate’s personal character or conduct,’ ‘for the purpose of affecting the return of any candidate at the election’ unless it can be shown that the publisher ‘had reasonable grounds for believing, and did believe, the statement to be true.’ (s.106 of the Representation of the People Act). While the offence of criminal libel was abolished last year, this law restricting false statements remains on the books (and can lead to prosecution or an injunction). I guess this law is not stringently enforced, but I wonder how many times we may see it being potentially breached.

Clegg accuses parties of colluding on party funding reform

April 7, 2010 Leave a comment

At PMQs, Nick Clegg accused the two main parties of colluding to prevent reform of the political system – in particular referring to the breakdown of talks with Sir Hayden Phillips to reform party funding.

Given that the major parties rely on different sources of funds, any reform of party funding will have high political stakes. For example, capping union donations would have greater impact on Labour and give a strategic advantage to the Conservatives. If you leave it to the leading parties to hammer out the rules behind closed doors, it is unsurprising that the talks will focus on strategic concerns and result in deadlock.

In any event, the reforms being proposed in the talks were fairly limited. The donation cap that was considered by Sir Hayden Phillips of £50k would have done little to make the political process fairer or more equal, and donations of that amount could still influence politicians. There was no consideration of bigger changes, like a ban on companies making donations out of their general funds (as is the case with unions in the UK and companies in the USA). The Phillips’ proposals would have been an important step, but would have been a partial measure leaving many gaps.

Categories: Party funding Tags: