Greg Hands MP: The proposal for a new £10,000 parliamentary communications allowance is bad for democracy
On Wednesday (28th March), the House of Commons will debate the latest in a series of measures that will skew individual constituencies in the next General Election in favour of the incumbents.
LABOUR MPs SEE THE NEW £10,000 ALLOWANCE AS A 'SAVE THEIR SEATS' LIFELINE
MPs will decide whether to vote themselves an additional £10,000 per annum communications allowance. My colleague Julie Kirkbride MP told the Commons when this was first given an airing in November, that this is an exercise in “save our seats” for Labour MPs. Chris Chope MP called it a “propaganda allowance,” and it is being fiercely opposed by us on the Conservative side.
Constituency battles are already skewed in favour of incumbents in this country. Not as badly as, say, in the United States, but nevertheless challenging candidates of all parties reading this will know of their despair at seeing taxpayer-funded House of Commons letters to constituents from MPs and other forms of taxpayer-funded promotions which appear almost identical to publications direct from the political parties.
Readers will be aware of the recent scandals of MPs’ postage expenses, even before this new £10,000 allowance is introduced. At present, average postage claims are about £4,000, but some Labour MPs claim far more. Hendon Labour MP Andrew Dismore claimed £25,146 last year, equal to sending 83,000 letters, or 612 for every day Parliament sat last year.
The new allowance, I am told by House of Commons staff, will include “proactive communications with constituents and others, newsletters, leaflets, annual reports and the postage for them. Royal Mail and paid leafletters would all be legitimate.” I expect that the challengers in marginal constituencies will be horrified. Taxpayers will develop an even dimmer view of how politicians spend their money and the overall expense bill of the House of Commons will go up by as much as £6,500,000 each year.
LABOUR MPs SITTING ON VULNERABLE MAJORITIES COULD GAIN A £30,000 TAXPAYER-PROVIDED FIGHTING FUND IF THE ELECTION IS 2010
If the next election is three years away, then each MP will have an additional £30,000 to spend. To put it in perspective, this is a similar amount of money over the long pre-election period to that provided to a select group of constituencies by Lord Ashcroft in the period 2003-2005. The ability of MPs to send out mass communications via the Royal Mail is a huge advantage to Labour MPs, who these days struggle to find activists on the street to do the deliveries for free.
If I were a Conservative challenger to either a Labour or LibDem MP, I would be rather worried right now. The opinion polls are starting to look good, and this is in no small part to David Cameron’s leadership. Thanks to the changes in the political scene since 2005, all parties are expecting the key battlegrounds at the next election to be Labour- and LibDem-held seats with majorities of between approximately 2,000 and 7,000.
To give the LibDems some credit, they are also opposed to these new communications allowances. Even some Labour MPs are opposed to them. Chris Mullin said in the November debate: “However, unless I am mistaken, there is no demand from them (his constituents) to receive glossy brochures through the post that contain 10, 16 or 20 photographs of their MP behaving like a fairy godmother. That is vanity publishing, and it should not be funded out of the public purse.”
UNDEMOCRATIC STATES LOAD THE FINANCIAL DICE IN FAVOUR OF INCUMBENTS
Ironically, it is Britain that often leads the way in arguing for democracy around the world. One of the key planks of our criticism of other countries – with important elections coming up in countries such as Russia and Nigeria – is the huge advantage given to incumbents, whether in access to the media, state funding and so on. Britain calls for these countries to create a more level playing field between incumbents and challengers, and for them to converge to international standards – it now seems that this convergence in the UK’s case will mean us moving towards them.
Elections in my constituency of Hammersmith & Fulham have a long tradition of being very closely fought, and a recent history of being comparatively very expensive. According to Electoral Commission statistics, it seems that Hammersmith & Fulham was the most expensive of any constituency election battle in the UK in the long campaign leading up to 2005, and the Council election in 2006 was similarly well financed from both parties.
I do not believe that the public have a problem with spending on a local level by political parties, so long as they don’t have to foot the bill. All the signs are that in places like Hammersmith & Fulham the public appreciate knowing who their candidates are and actually welcome receiving literature through the door and direct mail through the post – so long as there is a level playing field between the major parties.
Higher spending in a close fought contest generally increases turnout, which we generally and rightly view as being a good thing. At the 2005 General Election, Hammersmith & Fulham recorded an extraordinarily high 62% turnout – above the national average, a rarity for an inner city seat. This was higher than neighbouring marginals, and much higher than neighbouring “safe” seats like Kensington & Chelsea at only 50%, Brentford at 55% and so on. In our Council elections last year, the hard-fought marginal wards had a turnout typically a massive 8 – 10% higher than the “safe” wards.
CAPS ON CONSTITUENCY FUNDING COULD SUFFOCATE LOCAL ACTIVISM
The other, deeply pernicious move by Labour is to argue for caps on spending in individual constituencies each year, not just at election time, as a way of curbing local fundraising. Ironically, this is the kind of political fundraising that has the highest degree of public support. At the last election, a great deal of my funding came from central sources, but the majority was raised locally from party memberships and direct mail campaigns. The Hammersmith & Fulham Conservatives have increased their membership by around 600 people in the last five years. The constituency cap might prevent the money raised from these local members from being spent at all.
The communications allowances and the constituency caps are allowing Labour to introduce taxpayer funding by stealth. A closer examination of local Labour Party funding, however, reveals that state funding is already taking place in constituencies across the country. I mentioned that in my constituency Labour spent probably as much as the Conservatives in recent years. In terms of donations of more than £1,000 declared to the Electoral Commission since the PPERA came into effect in 2001, the local Conservatives have raised some £77,000, and the local Labour Party just under £90,000. There are some key differences, however. Of the £90,000 raised by Labour, £28,000 came from the GMB and Amicus trades unions. £56,000 came from the Hammersmith & Fulham Labour Group.
LABOUR COUNCILLORS ARE INCREASINGLY USING THEIR ALLOWANCES TO FUND PARTY POLITICS
Readers will be familiar with unions bankrolling the Labour Party, but will probably know less about local councillor groups. Electoral Commission figures show large and growing contributions from Labour Council Groups, funded by their Councillors’ Allowances (or salaries), to local Labour Parties, especially in London. It is understood that many Labour Council Groups make it a condition of selection as a Labour Council Candidate that a percentage of their Councillor’s salary be given to their local Labour Party.
In the four years between London Council elections in 2002 and 2006, among the big payers of Council Taxpayers’ money, via Councillors’ Allowances, to Labour Parties were Haringey (£65,000), Hackney (£55,000), Hammersmith & Fulham (£55,000), and Croydon (£17,000). Across London, Labour Groups gave more than £250,000 to their Labour Parties in that four year period.
Councillors’ Allowances were controversially first introduced in 1998 in Labour-led Hammersmith & Fulham Council, which created the nine highest-paid councillors in Britain. The Council, in common with many others, claimed that the Allowances were justifiable recompense for hours spent in Council committee meetings, and were needed to attract a better quality of Council candidate.
I think it is quite wrong for these large amounts of taxpayers’ money to be surreptitiously diverted to the Labour Party. We were told that these allowances were needed to recompense councillors for hours spent working, and to attract in better quality candidates. These allowances are now the norm across Britain, and I do not think the clock can now be turned back, but it is fair to say that no mention was made that the money would be diverted to pay for local Labour Party electioneering.
Not only have these allowances been used to fund their own
re-election, but also to fund Labour Party candidates at General
Elections. In the year leading up to the General Election, Hammersmith
Labour Councillors used £26,000 of taxpayers money in this way. A huge
amount of the Haringey Labour Group funds were used to fight the 2005
General Election in Hornsey and Wood Green.
This diversion of taxpayers’ money also strengthens incumbency at a local level. It also complicates local elections. Most, if not all, political parties prevent prospective candidates from buying their own selection as a candidate. Yet it is well known that many Labour Council groups insist on candidates signing up to give part – as much as 10% - of their allowance as a condition of their selection. The scandal was highlighted in November with the case of the former leader of Sunderland Council, Bryn Sidaway, who quit in protest at the financial levy requested of him. Mr Sidaway was threatened with disciplinary action for refusing to give 3% of his £7,106 allowance to the Labour Party. Councillors face expulsion from their local Labour group if they refuse to pay.
“Cash from councillors” isn’t quite in the same league as “cash for honours,” but the general public might question in the same way why people are required to pay up to gain their seat at the top table.
This week I met with Sam Younger at the Electoral Commission to argue as strongly as I could the case. First, we should oppose moves to strengthen incumbency by introducing these MPs’ communications allowances. Second, we should prevent the caps on local constituency spending. Finally, we need to give urgent attention to the growing practice of Councillors being forced to fund political parties. I expect that the debate will continue right up to the next General Election.