“Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives… The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
Article 21, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
My experience of taking part in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections helped me to appreciate that whilst the British electoral system is far from inherently corrupt or beyond hope, that a great deal of remedial work is needed if we are to argue that we have a democracy that lives up to the aspirations of Article 21 of the UDHR.
For example access to the electoral register is something that candidates in an election gain in the last few weeks before the votes are cast, enabling them to know the names and addresses of the voters on their patch. This comes far too late for a major campaign to be mounted, yet the political parties are allowed to store the electoral register from previous elections for use in their canvassing for the next. This places them at an inherent advantage when compared to Independent candidates. Of course they risk canvassing the wrong people in the case of those who have moved house, but that is not a major problem in most areas.
Another example is that parties which can be shown to be fighting a national campaign as opposed to a small number of local campaigns gain access to our TV screens and radio airwaves to broadcast their plans and promises. This inevitably places local candidates at a disadvantage in terms of getting ones voice heard with equal weight locally as these broadcasts are often carried on local TV and radio stations. These national parties are also allowed to spend a certain sum on national campaigning such as adverts in newspapers etc. which again is a facility that is denied to small parties and Independent candidates.
The amount that individual candidates can spend in an election is limited to a sum which few Independent candidates would find a barrier. Indeed there is an argument for suggesting that the limits are set far too high. In the PCC elections each of the candidates could in theory have spent over £200,000 which makes the Conservative campaign in Sussex which spent £37,000 seem quite modest. However the combined spend of the other 4 candidates was less than £9,000. Had the maximum been much lower, it would perhaps have presented the Conservatives with a proper limit to their activities that would have ensured that they were not able to outspend one candidate (me) by 100:1. Yet despite this we currently have a debate taking place and indeed an investigation into the spend by the Conservative Party during the 2015 General Election. What they did was focus some of their national spending into a small number of target seats, using national activists to move into these constituencies in a way that has distorted the local campaigns and they have broken local spending limits on a small number of these campaigns. This is not something that happened by mistake or is due to over enthusiasm, it is electoral fraud pure and simple. Michael Crick from Radio 4 uncovered this and there are investigations underway in over 20 constituencies. In response to Crick’s investigation, the Conservatives accepted that they had failed to declare some expenses for hotels due to what they termed an “administrative error”. Its as though an administrative error is not breaking the law. These parties employ a number of accountants to ensure that they deal with their expenses in the most effective way (for the party).
Its a small way of raising ones concern, but there is currently a petition on the Governments petition site, calling for Parliamentary authorities to force a by-election in places where the expenses rules are broken. This ensures that even if the MP concerned is not prosecuted, that the party is penalised and its rule breaking is highlighted, rather than buried in the vaults under Parliament. If like me you feel the Parties need to be held to account, you can find the petition here.