Source: Michaela Whitton at theantimedia.org
United Kingdom — With the E.U. debate fiercely dominating the U.K. press, news that more than a dozen police forces are investigating the systematic abuse of election rules by the Conservative party has barely merited a whisper. The scale of the operation is unfolding daily, with 33 constituencies involved, 29 Tory MPs implicated, 18 police forces investigating, and £182,000 spending uncovered.
Due to the rapidly unfolding situation, a recap is necessary. U.K. law says any sum spent promoting local election candidates must be declared on legal spending returns. Failure to declare such expenditures is a criminal offence. The electoral commission has clear guidelines, defining two types of spending on election campaigns as “Party Campaign Spending” and “Candidate Spending.”
In April, a Channel 4 investigation uncovered receipts showing that in some areas of the U.K., in the run-up to last May’s election, the Tories spent money allocated as party campaigning that should have been assigned as candidate spending. By law, candidates must not spend more than £100,000 on by-election campaigns. But as Channel 4 reported:
“In each area, the party was determined to win. But did candidates break the law when declaring their election expenses? Channel 4 News has found almost £100,000 spent during these campaigns that appears not to have been declared. If it had to be declared and was included on spending returns, all three Conservative candidates would have breached the legal spending limits.”
The breaches of spending rules centred mainly on the party’s Road Trip 2015 initiative, which sent “Battle Buses” crammed full of keen volunteers to target marginal seats. The Tories are accused of listing costs for the campaign under national spending rather than local spending, or not declaring them at all.
“If local campaigning had taken place, 24 of the 29 constituencies visited by BattleBus would have exceeded the legal spending limits set out by law. 22 of these seats were won by the Conservatives,” Channel 4 states. The party later confirmed they had failed to declare the costs related to Battlebus hotels, putting it down to an “administrative error.”
Fresh evidence continues to unfold and reveal the scale of the operation. Eighteen police forces have been given, or are seeking, an extension to the time limit on their investigations. Just this week, independent news outlet, The Canary, pointed to another layer of the scandal, suggesting the Tories may also have breached a law prohibiting paying canvassers to support a candidate’s election.
In South Thanet, the election battleground where the Tories defeated UKIP leader Nigel Farage, new evidencehas shown that huge resources poured into the constituency included a battle bus and senior campaign leader — neither of which were included in the spending returns. Unsurprisingly, South Thanet is the only constituency where the Tories have attempted to obstruct the probe — even going so far as to hire one of the country’s top lawyers to fight the extension.
Thankfully, after outlining his reasons, District Judge Barron refused to back down to Tory pushback. Granting Kent police an extra 12 months to continue their investigations this week, he said, “In this case, the allegations are far-reaching and the consequences of a conviction would be of a local and national significance with the potential for election results being declared void.”
Many will likely be frustrated at the vast time-scale of the investigation, which could take up to a year. Though the sheer scale and seriousness of the allegations mean a thorough probe into the corruption is crucial, in the time it takes to bring charges, the U.K. could be coming up to another election.