Archive for category Electoral Reform

Zac Goldsmith, the Election Finance Laws and Gaming

Channel 4 News has run an expose on campaign spending by MPs in May’s general election. Zac Goldsmith (Con, Richmond Park) did not acquit himself well during an interview with Jon Snow, and now the Electoral Commission has announced that it will investigate his expenses. Channel 4’s expose seems like an effort to replicate the Telegraph’s exposure of MPs improper expense claims. And there are similarities between the two: unrealistic caps on payment (in MPs’ salaries and for election advertising) led MPs and candidates to game the system by finding ways around the caps. Both were a fertile ground for legalistic interpretations of rules. And once legalistic interpretations had become commonplace, as they seem to have done, it became easy to use them to explain increasing deviations from the ‘spirit’ of the law–as difficult as such a spirit is to define in any meaningful sense.

The problem with the election funding scandal is that it’s nearly impossible to articulate administrable rules about election spending that can be both predictable and fair. Less experienced candidates (with fewer advisers willing to help them find loopholes) will inevitably suffer, and more experienced candidates (with resources to spend on coming up with creative interpretations of the rules) will benefit. The real winners are election lawyers.

One solution is the one followed by the United States, where election spending cannot be limited because of principles of Free Speech in the First Amendment but where elections are very expensive. That leads to its own problems in terms of rent seeking by candidates’ donors, who ask for political favours (or at least face time) in exchange for their contributions of money (as well as time and influence). Some political scientists speculate that the entire political economy of the United States may be broken because of this problem. But there are other ways of dealing with these issues.

Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres have made two neat proposals. The first, as a response to the US Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, would prohibit all companies with federal contracts from making any donations to political campaigns. Since most large corporations have some contracts with the federal government, it would force all or them to make a decision about whether to eliminate the appearance of impropriety by foregoing either the donations or the profits from the contracts. The second (even neater) proposal would allocate $50 in patriot dollars to each voter, which would be contributed to a campaign anonymously through an ATM. Voters could also contribute their own money in addition to the amount allocated, but they would have to contribute that money anonymously as well. Thus, there would be no way for a candidate to know who had contributed to his/her campaign, and the adverse influence or campaign contributions on the political process would be limited, if not eliminated entirely. Corporate and other large contributions would be diluted with (substantial) federal funding, and it would be impossible for a legislator to grant any political favours to large contributors, as no contributors could prove that they had contributed.

The application to the British problem is not entirely clear, but there is one. First, the system in the United States emphasizes the provision of information (including advertising); the system in the United Kingdom emphasizes the need for candidates to have an equal opportunity to gain office. But that equality seems illusory when wealthy people, with access to legal advice and the ability to spend a great deal of money on durable goods (like Goldsmith’s famous tricycles and coats) can find ways around necessarily brittle rules on expenditures. One important question, which should be asked, is whether there is more demand for information during campaigns, or whether the market for information is currently saturated. That, of course, depends on the quality of the information being provided and on other largely indeterminate factors. But it seems like there ought to be a place for more debate, unconstrained by artificial campaign finance limits. Government funding is one way around the problem, which is frequently adopted in European countries; a market system (financed by the government) is another one, and that might be more administrable than any of the alternatives.

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The New Fixed Terms

A.V. Dicey wrote, ‘Parliament… has… the right to make or unmake any law whatever . . . Parliament is not bound by its predecessor.’ The outline of the coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats provides,

The parties agree to the establishment of five year fixed-term parliaments. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government will put a binding motion before the House of Commons in the first days following this agreement stating that the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015. Following this motion, legislation will be brought forward to make provision for fixed term parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.

 A ‘Parliament’ as the term is used here, exists between general elections. It can, but need not, be dissolved on a vote of no confidence in the government. Parliament cannot bind its successors, but it can bind itself for its own duration, even under Dicey’s rule. Assume also that the 55% rule applies to the current Parliament (which it may not!).

In the current Parliament, this means that David Cameron cannot go to her majesty and request a dissolution until May, 2015. That ties his hands. It also withdraws the royal prerogative to grant such a request for at least five years. However, if there is a vote of no confidence, that does not mean that there will be a general election. The Liberal Democrats will preserve their position as the pivot in the House of Commons for the full five years until May 2015. Assume that the 55% requirement will apply in the current parliament as well as in future ones. The Conservatives lack the ability by themselves to dissolve Parliament (55% = approximately 358 votes, depending on how one counts). Thus, if the Liberal Democrats leave the coalition and the Conservatives cannot pass supply or other important legislation, her majesty will call on the next largest party to form a government. That will be Labour. This strengthens the Lib Dems’ hand when they are negotiating with the Conservatives. It, too, preserves their position as a pivot in the House of Commons. This takes power from (a) the queen; (b) the executive; (c) a party in the House of Commons that has less than 55%. It gives power to everyone else. If you’re trying to force people to get along, that’s a good thing. If you want an elected dictatorship, it’s a bad thing.

No matter what, it’s another stake in Dicey’s heart if the legislation is passed, presumably with a supermajority requirement on its repeal, which limits every future government’s ability to dissolve but also narrows the royal prerogative. At the same time, it’s all in the details. Will there be a super-quorum requirement? How will the 55% be counted? Will the speaker and deputy speaker and Sinn Fein be part of the requirement?

This historical background just in: Constitution Unit Briefing Paper on 55% dissolution requirement.

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