Today we had the shock news that British election law is so weak that it’s very very hard to actually break it (which is probably why Phil Woolas was so shocked that a court found he actually had). The main problem, I find, is that what people think election law should be is a very long way away from what it is. For instance, a number of times I’ve heard people (of all parties) complaining about a leaflet, a poster, or something else and saying they’re going to go and complain to the Returning Officer. The Returning Officer has no powers to intervene in electioneering, merely ensure that the election process itself is carried out properly – for most electoral complaints, the sole recourse is a legal process that starts with complaining to the police. It does lead to some particularly perverse situations, like a letter advising you to vote for party X in your constituency doesn’t count as local expenditure because it doesn’t mention the candidate’s name. If you’re wondering how parties can get in under the very low constituency election spending limits yet still bombard you with paper for the next four weeks, that’s how. (It’s also one of the reasons why sites like Election Leaflets are so useful to see what sort of things are happening)
All that doesn’t stop filling in the forms to record your expenditure at the end of the election being a laborious and tiresome process, especially when your candidates suddenly give you a receipt for a bunch of posting they did without telling you or something similar. I was an agent for local elections once, and it was a somewhat interesting experience, but never ever again.You may have noticed in some of the coverage from France that there are very prominent timers visible during all the debates showing just how much time a candidate has used or has left, and those limits are strictly enforced. It’s another example of something in British politics that’s been half-heartedly reformed over the years, but no one’s actually gone on to finish the job and do it properly to ensure elections are truly fair and balanced between all contenders.
If you’re reading this blog, then I tend to assume that you do have some knowledge about how the election works, but even so you might find MySociety’s Beginner’s Guide To The Election interesting and useful. Over my time in politics I’ve heard variations of all the questions they have on that page, and many more besides, and it’s often quite staggering to see just how little we do to educate people about just how the system works, and how much of it is assumed.
A quick bit of electoral pact news: the Greens have announced that they’re not standing in Lewes, to give the Liberal Democrats a better chance of retaking the seat, while in South West Surrey a combination of withdrawals and decisions to not do any campaigning appear to make Dr Louise Irvine of the NHA Party the best-placed challenger to Jeremy Hunt. The prospect of actually removing the Health Secretary has so overjoyed Labour HQ that they’ve…suspended the membership of some of those who made the decision. The ‘we must stand everywhere’ tendency amongst all the parties is actually a lot newer than you might think, but like so many British things, people act as though it’s an immutable law that’s been in place since the dawn of time rather than a few decades ago, and breaching it will cause horrible things to happen.
We shall see the outcome of all these deals tomorrow, when nominations close and we get the lists of who has been nominated, and just whether any party may have accidentally made an error on their nomination papers which means they won’t be standing a candidate. I believe the standard time for nominations closing is 4pm, so watch out for local council websites being slammed with requests for candidate lists from then on.
And when you know who’s standing, don’t forget to take the chance to take part in my election prediction competition, described as “the geekiest general election prediction competition yet” by one participant.
And finally, time for Election Leaflet Of The Day, and one that will definitely be counting towards local expenses as it mentions the candidate’s name quite clearly. It’s from Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray, though while his name is clear, let’s play a game of ‘which party is he a member of?’ A clue: it’s not Open Britain, even though that’s the only political organisation to get a mention on the front page. Can you spot the references to his party anywhere? And should everyone hand correct bar charts before scanning and uploading a leaflet they’ve received, like the recipient of this one did?
And for once, the big pledge everyone’s excited about today isn’t election-related, it’s that there’s going to be a Judge Dredd TV series. Honest. Just like the announcement that there’s going to be a return of Blake’s 7, which is something that’s definitely going to happen any day now.