Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Fair play!

As her Agent, I handed in Wendy's election expenses today to the Elections Office in Liverpool City Council. They are the most helpful and supportive staff, for all candidates and agents of all parties and I often stop for a bit of a chat when I have reason to call in. I asked, just out of interest really, what would happen with the expenses, would they be checked? Would someone look through to see whether my maths was right, whether I had the requisite copies of invoices, whether I had chosen the right categories for our various expenditures etc?

I was reminded that returns are not checked by the staff, it is neither their duty nor responsibility, they merely accept them, record their receipt, hold on to them for a year and then pass them to the Electoral Commission. I asked whether the Electoral Commission check them but nobody was entirely sure. It was not even clear whether anyone at the Commission is aware, chases up or reprimands any candidate who has failed to submit their expenses, although one would assume they do at least employ a few AAs and AOs to check this fairly fundamental requirement.

I know that anybody - any tax payer, any member of the public, political or otherwise, can come into the office and ask to see any expense returns from any candidate for 12 months after an election, but the staff were unable to recall when the last time was that anyone had actually requested a look at any returns from any candidate in any ward in any local elections. Although to be fair, they did recall a small amount of interest in a few returns in the occasional General Election.

We did discuss the thought that had any local candidate put up hundreds of billboards or published 30 page newspapers, it might generate some interest in their returns, but it seems that because we clearly all do keep within the official limits, we don't bother to check our opponents. We know what is spent broadly because we can see what material is published, how glossy or plain it is, how widely it is circulated, how many posters are displayed in windows, how many public meetings are held (virtually none at all these days) and we know the relative costs of different printers. It is interesting that the public don't bother to check returns either. I wonder if that is because they don't know that they can or whether it is because instinct tells them that nobody is running amok with a cheque book?

You can slate the Representation of the People Act all you like, but it certainly seems to have seen off the very last vestiges of Rotten Boroughs, financially speaking. (Remember David Mellor and his "Up your Hacienda Jimmy, your attempt to buy the British electorate has failed" cry in the 1997 general election  before RPA was enacted?)

I was allowed to spend upwards of £1000 on Wendy's campaign legally but spent less than £500 and even that sum was inflated because I produced a more expensive full colour glossy "election address" compared to most candidates who made do with two colour printing on white 90gm paper. And all of that is obvious to anyone who lives in a ward, it is very hard to spend Brewster's Millions with nobody noticing - unless you are a staggeringly inept agent.

With my hand on my heart I can say that despite having been active as an agent, campaigner or candidate in hundreds of elections in the last 20 years, I personally have never once been to examine a single return of any candidate's expenses, ever, anywhere. And I find this somewhat thought provoking, so I thought I would leave this here for your contemplation and remark.


scouseboy said...

I'm surprised you even spent £500 given that this year's local election was basically a walkover !

Gerard said...

Good blog post.

I found myself being agent to 30 candidates this year. 30! Daunting as a first-time agent. Reason being of course it was all-up elections here, rather than thirds in Liverpool.

I had various expense limits for the different wards, and it was exhausting as I was merticulous in declaring what we had spent. Getting each declaration form signed by the candidate, amassing invoices etc - I was so glad to hand over those forms on Friday afternoon.

You've hit on a few things I too was curious about - for instance I didn't know the papers were held for a whole year for public inspection. I am aware of several agents from various parties who have forgotten to hand in a candidates forms for one reason or another, and have received visits from the local constabulary. Presumably someone, somewhere, had been taking note.

I was also forwarned the act of handing over the forms was something of an anti-climax - indeed it was! They are politely received, and that is that.

Now back to the grind...

Louise Baldock said...

Hi Les, it is true that we could have spent less and Wendy would still have won by a proverbial shed-load, but our glammed-up election address has become a bit of a collectors' item over the years. Some residents use them in lieu of window posters, many save them and bring them into surgeries in subsequent years, one or two have even been known to frame them (you could not make it up!). They all also really like the endorsers photographs and we always have more than we can use. In Wendy's first election I did an endorsement special with about 30 photos in and it was met with huge interest. People were stopping us in the street to point out residents they knew in the photos.

And anyway, she is worth it!

Louise Baldock said...

Hi Gerard, good to hear from you, from all the way down south. So if you had 30 candidates in an all out election, whereas we had 30 candidates in thirds, is it a very small authority then?

I dont fancy being an agent to 30 candidates, although I have been the campaign manager for that many when I was in Sheffield back in 2000. You must have been demented, they go off on holiday without signing the forms, they forget to tell you about balloon gas, they insist on loads of in kind stuff that you have no idea how to deal with, I am well out of that scale of operation now.
I guess that comes with being a professional organiser, it has been 10 years since I was last in that position.
Anyway, you have got everything handed in, well done, so have a holiday, have a rest, or even go and sit in a darkened room for a while and hum to yourself....

Gerard said...

Well its actually smaller! Its Eastbourne borough council - 27 councillors, plus an additional 3 candidates from a neighbouring council thats in the constituency. But each ward has between 7100 - 8900 constituents, of a similiar size to that of K&F, I think.

I wasn't demented, just kept a cool head and ploughed on with it. I found that works with the actual election, too.

I must confess, I am now looking forward to a holiday, somewhere, and returning back to Liverpool for a few days next month.

Hmm, thinking about it, it will just be nice to have the luxury to go out in the sunshine and deliver a few newsletters without any pressure!

Louise Baldock said...

Eastbourne? I confess I have never been there, and I am not going to cheat and look it up on a map, I am going to guess that it is on the south coast, perhaps east of Southampton, or west of Brighton. I vaguely think there may be a Westbourne too.

Is it full of pensioners and retired army officers? And benches on the prom where one was once able to listen to brass bands? and do they suffer from small dogs leaving small deposits on otherwise lovely pavements because the owners are too old to pick up after them?

Come home for the summer, dude, we can paint the town a kind of high autumn shade, between my red and your orange. A decent coffee or a glass of wine at least?

I can't think there is much of a scene down there, we could try a few new gigs out?

PS dont bother delivering any of your crappy leaflets in my lovely ward, you came third this time, and the chip shops have plenty of paper for the wrapping of fish suppers already ;-)

Gerard said...

Ahh, its a great place Louise!

Its really vibrant with a large student population, as well as retired folk. Great theatres, events every week - for example this week we have the international AEGIS tennis tournament with the Venus sisters playing. I saw 'La Cage Au Folle' at the theatre last weekend. "The Sunshine Coast" - we apparently have the most amount of sun than anywhere else in the UK - and its true, most weekends are glorious - have a break from your duties, come down and stay in one of our fine guest houses on the terrific promenade (where you can STILL hear brass bands!) some time. Take a splash in the blue-flagged sea, or take time out in the shopping district, or take in the art gallery and museums around the town.

The lovely pavements are rarely tarnished with dog muck, as the Lib Dem run Borough Council (now in its second continuious term) provide plenty of dog bins in all the wards.

Brighton's 17 miles to the west, so i'm spoilt for choice in terms of scene.

I did mean delivering leaflets here - as an Organiser, I still love doing that, getting out with our many volunteers and activists. As for Liverpool, I would happily deliver a Focus. I'm not sure you would do the same in Eastbourne with the 'Rose' - your party came a poor third in every ward, i'm afraid.

I am absolutely taking you up on wine, rather than coffee. Any place of your choice. Do you have a fave in the Stanley St. area?
And if you get me on the right day, i'm buying!

Louise Baldock said...

We could meet up in the Lisburn perhaps? There are a few places I have not been to yet, up by the town hall but that would be a good place to start. Have you got any dates to come up yet?

Gerard said...

Probably third or fourth week in July. Lisburn would be great. I do miss the whole Quarter. I will send an email to confirm, but i'm looking forward to it x

Louise Baldock said...