§ Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)
I beg to move,That leave be given to bring in a Bill to control general election expenses within limits set nationally and in each constituency; and for connected purposes.Many hon. Members have travelled worldwide to observe the electoral processes of many of the newly democratised countries. We have rarely found anything to complain about in their newly minted democratic systems. But I wonder what the verdict of observers from Romania, Estonia and Hungary might be on our electoral system, had they been here in April. I believe that they would have said that the system was basically sound, but long overdue for care and maintenance, especially in its weakest sector—its failure to control national spending.
We have just witnessed in the United States the power that money deployed in prodigious quantities can have to persuade one voter in five to vote for a previously little known candidate. In Britain we are in an extremely foolish position. For more than 100 years we have rigidly controlled local spending by individual candidates. That reform was introduced to end the practice then known as bribing and treating, which dishonoured the electoral process in the last century. Since 1974 an aberration in the law has allowed parties to spend unlimited sums of money on so-called national spending, which means that spending is allowed on publicity which mentions the party's name, but not the candidate's name.
Not surprisingly, since that time national spending has increased and local spending has decreased. At the last two elections, for every £1 spent locally £8 was spent nationally. The law frets and worries about the minnows while the great fat salmon sail by unhindered. The most authoritative calculation that I can find on the comparative spending of the three main parties in the last two general elections is that for every £1 spent by the Liberal Democrats, Labour spent £4 and the Conservative party spent £9—more that all other parties combined.
At an election the incumbent party already has enormous advantages. Earlier, there was a point of order about the possible use of Government money for propaganda. A great avalanche of Government so-called advertising precedes a general election. The Government have an obedient press and control of their own advertising in a friendly poster industry. The advantage of the richest party is magnified to an even greater extent because the so-called national advertising is concentrated in the 100-plus key marginal constituencies which determine the election result.
I have searched for some scientific analysis of how persuasive were the "double whammy" and "tax bombshell" posters in April. There is none, but subjective evidence shows that that message was repeated on many billboards and, although it was dishonest, it had an enormous effect in influencing people's voting choice. However, there is an even greater threat to the integrity of our system—the way in which the poster sites were distributed. Three huge blocks of valuable poster sites were booked in the name of commercial companies before the date of the general election was announced, and many of them were booked without the knowledge or consent of those companies.
898 The most significant feature was that 2,000 poster sites were booked in the name of the Imperial Tobacco Company which immediately handed over those sites to be used by the Conservative party. In a frank statement, Mr. Peter Middleton, the marketing manager of that company said that as Labour and the Liberal democrats had said that they would support a ban on tobacco advertising, the company would like to see the Conservatives re-elected because it believed that they would continue to oppose the advertising ban.
The refusal to support a ban on advertising is one of the promises that the Government have honoured, and they continue—quite disgracefully and against all the evidence and public opinion—to oppose such a ban. The greatest threat is that there is nothing to prevent an individual, a company or even a country with enormous amounts of money, however malign their intentions or anti-social their views, to enter the British electoral system and spend millions£there is no limit whatever—to persuade voters. Our system, if it is not yet corrupted, is wide open and inviting corruption to come in. Vote buying is returning to British elections.
The remedy that the Bill provides is the establishment of a national registration system for political parties. So out of touch is the law that at present it does not even recognise the existence of political parties. The Bill seeks an electoral commission to oversee all national expenditure limits. Each party would appoint a national agent to be legally responsible for ensuring that limits are not exceeded. Those controls would be based on the number of candidates fielded by each party. The Bill's general sentiments have been publicly supported over and over again by all main British parties except one£the party which gains most from the present system.
Last week in my constituency, we commemorated the 153rd anniversary of the martyrdom of 20 Chartists who died when they demonstrated outside the Westgate hotel. That commemoration of those brave men and women who gave their lives for what they said was a noble cause is held every year. They died in the cause of protecting and strengthening the dishonoured democracy of their day. Democracy is a fragile organism and it needs the constant care and renewal that the Bill will provide.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman must start again, giving the names of hon. Members who will bring in the Bill.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Paul Flynn, Mr. Nick Ainger, Mr. Jon Owen Jones, Mrs. Jane Kennedy, Mr. Nick Harvey, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd and Mr. Andrew Mackinlay.