A new way to see and compare candidate spending at elections

Louise Edwards, Director of Regulation

When it was set up 20 years ago, the Electoral Commission was tasked with ensuring transparency over the money received and spent by political parties, and later campaigners, to influence your vote at an election. This is one of the most important principles in the regulation of political finance. So I’m particularly pleased that we have been able to expand that transparency to encompass candidate spend, by launching a new tool that allows you to see and compare how candidates spent money to influence your vote at the 2019 UK Parliamentary General Election.

The tool allows you to find and analyse information from candidate spending returns, and is pre-loaded with searches for candidates who spent and received the most and the least money during the election. But that’s not all it can do, we have saved search criteria we think will be of interest, and you can run your own searches too comparing spend by majority, largest spend without winning a seat and constituency size. 

There’s a lot of data here – from thousands of candidate spending returns collected from several hundred returning officers (ROs) at local authorities up and down the UK. 
It’s a great way of sharing information which would not otherwise be particularly accessible to the public. After a general election, candidates submit their spending returns to the RO responsible for running the poll in their area, within 35 days of the result being declared. That means separate information is held by hundreds of different local authorities. Once it’s sent to us, we collate it and publish it online in one place, so that you can compare information for different candidates across the county. 

In time, we want to make even more information available. What we’ve published today doesn’t go down to the level of the individual expenses and donations that candidates report following the election. Under current legislation, you can only view these records by visiting a local authority in person. At a time when most people expect information to be available at the click of a button, it is disappointing to have transparency curtailed by such outdated laws. We want to see the law updated so that full spending returns from all candidates are published online in one place for all to see. 

Last week, we published the spending returns submitted by parties and campaigners following the 2019 European Parliamentary Elections, and later this year we will be publishing the returns of parties and campaigners from the 2019 General Election. When it comes to these returns, we can publish every item that parties and campaigners spent money on during the campaign, complete with corresponding invoices for everything over £200. We believe there should be one single place where you can find this kind of information for every party, campaigner and candidate. That’s why we are calling for the Commission to be the regulator of all party, campaigner and candidate political finance in the UK. 

We can improve transparency and confidence for voters by making candidate spending returns easily available on our website, in a similar way to those of parties and campaigners, and by regulating candidate spend in the same way that we regulate party spend. When parties submit incomplete returns, we find out why, get the missing information and take enforcement action if necessary, imposing proportionate fines where appropriate. At the moment, when a candidate submits an incomplete spending return, potentially committing a criminal offence, the only recourse is a police investigation and prosecution. This means a cliff-edge scenario for candidates between no action at all and the possibility of a criminal record.

A single regulator ensuring transparency and accuracy of candidate spending, as well as party and campaigner spending, can give you the confidence that the political finance rules are being enforced. In the meantime, I hope you find this new tool valuable.