Friday 9 October 2015

Democracy for Sale?

As Brent Council prepares to celebrate Local Democracy Week  LINK guest blogger Scott Bartle raises some pertinent questions about the role of money in national elections.

First things first, if spending money wasn’t felt to affect the result of an election it wouldn’t be done. We know how much politicians like money as evidenced by their expenses claims. Generally when we consider excessive election spending we look over to the United States where an exorbitant amount is spent per election cycle reaching over $6Billion in 2012. Yet in the UK we are beginning to be faced with similar questions. As an example, I’ll provide the expenses information from across the three constituencies of Brent.

·      Hampstead & Kilburn:
Tulip Siddiq was elected with a total spend of £42,752.16

·      Brent Central:
Dawn Butler was duly elected MP with a total spend of  £18,823.74 

·      Brent North:
Barry Gardiner spent £25,973.24 to be elected in his ‘safe seat’.

To put this into context we as the Green Party struggled raising the £500 for deposits to stand for election in the first place. It was thanks to national and local Crowdfunder campaigns that we were able to put up an almost full slate.  

Once you’re over that hurdle the bare minimum that voters expect from candidates and what you hope to provide is information as to why you’re standing. The government provides a ‘free-post’ scheme however you still have to pay for the printing of the leaflets which whilst almost prohibitive for us can certainly be out of reach for independent candidates. Indeed, the independent candidate standing for Brent North, Elcena Jeffers MBE spent absolutely nothing. Brent Green’s total spend for Brent North was £795.95 with the majority of that (£600) on the ‘free’ - post. Meanwhile Barry Gardiner spent £10,457.64 on leaflets, £90 for some people to do the ‘folding’ for him, as well as £4950.77 on staff, £3352.76 on an office and utilities, £150 on rosettes, £145 on stickers, £119.40 on Balloons, £343,95 on Helium gas all within what was described as a ‘safe-seat’. It can feel difficult to complete when even Labour, as a party that purports to represent the ‘working class’ spends the equivalent of 4 newly qualified nurses salaries on 3 constituencies alone.

Does the public wish to elect people to parliament based upon policy or plentiful purses? As with any fairground, (well Barry bought the balloons) it appears those who have the money to throw the most balls at the coconuts always get the prize. This presents a particularly unfair environment for Independents who receive very limited media space and as such he public might never know nor have the opportunity to decide if their policies were what they were looking for.

A complaint with our political system is that elected politicians are not representative of the communities they wish to serve. Yet, if it’s difficult for those who might be, to achieve the parity to even be heard, economic inequality will forever translate into political inequality.

Whilst arguments for electoral reform are focused upon proportional representation, it would be a mistake to forget about the finances. Even a separate room in polling stations with poster presentations of politicians’ policy could contribute towards making a difference. In 2011 Sir Christopher Kelly calculated that it would cost £23million per year to fund a state funded political system (that’s 50p per person for reductionists out there). When as a country we spend more per year on the upkeep of a Monarchy as opposed to ensuring a level playing field for a fair and transparent democratic process we know the system is broken. We will forever be disappointed that our parliament is not representative of people by Gender, Age, Ability, Ethnicity, Education, Socio-economic status or sexuality.     

Scott Bartle is a member of Brent Green Party and this year stood as a candidate in the constituency of Brent North.


Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group said...

It's fair to say that the geographical focus of Wembley Matters and this blog piece is LB Brent and its parliamentary constituencies. Hampstead & Kilburn consitutencies is a hybrid containing wards from LB Brent and LB Camden, and yet there are vast disparities between what the Green Party spent in Hampstead & Kilburn constituency and what it spent in LB Camden-only Holborn & St Pancras constituency. Camden New Journal reports:

Revealed: How Green leader Natalie Bennett outspent rivals in failed bid to conquer Holborn and St Pancras

"GREEN Party leader Natalie Bennett massively outspent her rivals with a costly £40,000 election campaign as she tried to take a grip in Labour’s fortress constituency of Holborn and St Pancras, the New Journal can reveal.

"Rivals were last night suggesting that the Greens had 'bet the house and lost' at the May 7 general election after expenses filed at the Town Hall showed who spent what and where.

"[Green Party 'long campaign' and 'short campaign' expense outlines for Holborn & St Pancras constituency outlined.]

"In total, the Greens spent £40,578. Ms Bennett increased the party’s share of the vote in Holborn and St Pancras by 10 per cent but her final score of 7,013 votes failed to put the frighteners on Labour winner Sir Keir Starmer. She finished third, more than 5,000 votes behind Conservative candidate Will Blair...."

This Camden New Journal input puts a different perspective on the matter, indicating that the Green Party needs to address its internal inequalities on such matters. What are you going to do about that Green Party internal disparity, Scott?

Yet a Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group member reporting on a Brent North hustings said: "I had been very favourably impressed with the Green Party candidates' performances in Hampstead & Kilburn and Brent Central, but the Green Party candidate's performance in Brent North was so 'negative' -- hostile toward other parties' candidates -- detracting from what the Green Party had to offer as a real alternative, that I was put off from voting Green Party in my home [Brent Central] constituency." She did not name you, Scott, although I recognised that you would have beeen the 'most likely suspect' given the consituency billing. As that was the only negative response I heard to one of your hustings performances, I think it could well have been a 'one-off', as we all have highs and lows in our performances.

Yet, going back to the dismal electoral performance of Green Party Leader natalie Bennett in Holborn & St Pancras constituency in terms of 'costs benefits analysis' I suppose it would also be fair to say that 'there is good publicity and there is bad publicity' and one Natalie Bennett bad performance with one interview got far more exposure than Iain Duncan Smith's performance ond the BBC Daily Politics Work & Pensions debate a few days before the General Election Polling Day. Greens demand IDS apology for misleading voters on benefit deaths.

Dude Swheatie of Kwug

Alison Hopkins said...

I'm deeply sceptical of Butler's figures. She had an office and two organisers, and put out loads of bumf.

Anonymous said...

I think the example you gave of the 40K spent in Holborn & St Pancras demonstrates the point that money spent is considered to influence the election result. What I've observed about The Green Party is that it operates like a franchise system where members of geographical areas fees pay into The Green Party brand and in return, it dishes out Capitations to regional and local partys who due to the structure of the party run pretty autonomously. This probably stems from the anarchistic principles that underpins Green thought around principles of grassroots democracy and in my eyes self-governed voluntary communities are a good thing. When you're stuck within a particular system though sometimes you have to play the game and the party selected 12 constituencies as target wards and Camden Green Party democratically selected Natalie to stand within that ward. It might be said the leader might be considered an obvious person to stand in one of the target wards (given the extra media etc). Natalie Bennett came third with 12.8% of the vote which was one of the highest results for The Green Party and the rest of the target wards achieved similar higher vote shares. Apart from Rashid Nix who stood in Dulwich and West Norwood who also achieved nearly 10% in a non target ward because he's a really inspiration speaker and will go far e.g. and deserves everyones preference votes for the greater london assembly list. As for challenging inequalities within The Green Party, it already aims for a representative balance and sought to challenge a ban on job shares for MPs (see
This shows the wider challenges we face are with the external. Brent Labour are a case in point, they awarded themselves a pay rise with the suggestion that this would 'increase diversity of the candidates', but Brent is a one party state and their CLP's selected the candidates for council in the first place. Clearly a bunch that lack in diversity according to their own (cynical) argument.

You've said before about your friends feedback on that particular hustings. On the one hand, it might be self evident that I had not much to say about three political parties who at that point were each preaching a particular shade of tory. On that I'm aware this person felt I was perhaps being mean about Dawn Butler, but I don't know Dawn - I've only ever seen her behaviour as a Labour politician and it was that and the choices that she made when it came to her expenses I was passing comment to. Perhaps commenting on that sort of thing is frowned upon in political circles, but I'm never travelled in those circles - I reside firmly in the real world where talk of left/right/moderate/progressive is all meaningless crap to me in contrast to issues e.g. attacks on the NHS, the poor, the vulnerable etc. I stood as a challenge to what I think is wrong and said it. If your friend has a view on what they consider positive or what the alternative should have been they're as welcome as anyone is to sign up to the party and contribute. As might be seen above The Green Party does not have any 'machine', 'campaign strategists' or 'people to fold leaflets' within its employment and has a reliance upon the good will of its membership for support or advice. This person might have considered looking at what her own candidate Shahrar Ali said on matters though (a great speech from autumn conference but there's always another chance for the GLA.

- Scott.

Anonymous said...

part 2: Back to the democracy ---

if we did some maths and notice that in the end I was a better value candidate than Barry (with 0.51p spent per vote as opposed to 1.08p) and this story was replicated up and down the country - we might ask if people think they're buying votes? I would never have known before this that the democratic system is riddled with bias before anyone even marks their ballot. This is even before we start to look at the system in which votes are counted after they are cast! Which means considering the Conservatives spend the most and receive the most in 'donations' it means the country is in for a bumpy ride and makes it even more likely that Labour will sell out again to the Chukka Umunna / Blair types. Where-ever you live, I'd ask for people to visit and write to the person that was elected and ask them to put electoral reform and a state funded system on the map.



Anonymous said...

I too was surprised at the figures when it came to the office as compared to Barry Gardiner, she got an utterly remarkable good deal. I was wondering if it was possible for people to pay for things up front in advance of the cut of dates? I was told her expenses were really messy and disorganised - I'd like to go have a second look.

The independent for Brent Central, Noel Coonan posted leaflets through my door but didn't declare anything at all. The returns for Kamran Malik of Communities United Party were also very low considering he put a fair amount of leaflets through the door (I know how much these cost now!) and even had a 'communities united' van all decked out / spray painted etc with his face / party all over it!



Alison Hopkins said...

Sounds well worth a second look to me. I think one of the problems may be the revised rules: the business of long and short campaigns. I also wonder if they assigned expenses to the European campaign. In any event, it's odd, to say the least.

Yes, there's a cost of leaflets! Even if someone does them at home, or "for free", you're supposed to allocate a cost.