What is a non-party campaigner?

Lots of individuals and organisations campaign around elections without standing candidates themselves. We call them ‘non-party campaigners’.

Non-party campaigners are vital to a healthy democracy and, as a society, we must encourage their active participation, including during elections.

In many cases, spending on campaigns and activities will not be regulated.

However, where there is significant spending on campaigning, there are rules that campaigners must follow to ensure that they provide transparency for voters on their campaign finances. We regulate compliance with those rules.

Who is this guidance for?

This guidance is for anyone spending significant amounts of money on issues-based campaigns, who need to work out if any of their campaign spending is regulated.

What are the rules for non-party campaigners?

There are two types of non-party campaigns. These are: 

General campaigns Local campaigns

Campaigns for or against:

  • one or more political parties
  • parties or candidates that support or do not support particular policies
  • other categories of candidate

 

Campaigns for or against:

  • one or more candidates
  • in a particular constituency, ward or other electoral area

 

 

Local campaigns

Local campaigns are subject to a spending limit. For example, the limit for campaigning for or against one or more candidates in a constituency in a UK Parliamentary general election is £700.

The Electoral Commission does not regulate local non-party campaigning and this guidance does not cover the local campaign rules in detail.

Complaints about breaches of the local campaign rules should be made to the police.

General campaigns

The Electoral Commission regulates general non-party campaigns.

Spending on the following activities can be regulated:

  • election material
  • canvassing and market research
  • public rallies or public events
  • press conferences or other media events 
  • transport in connection with publicising your campaign

The rest of this guidance document is about the general campaign rules.

Last updated: 23 September 2019

Registration

The rules only apply in the period before certain elections. We call this the ‘regulated period’. In this period, if you spend over a threshold on regulated activity in a particular part of the UK, then you must register with us.

If your total regulated spending stays below these thresholds in each part of the UK, you do not need to register.

Part of the UK Registration threshold
England  £20,000
Scotland £10,000
Wales £10,000
Northern Ireland £10,000

If your regulated spending goes over one of the thresholds, then rules apply on spending, donations and reporting, and you must register with us. It is an offence to spend more than the threshold without being registered first.

For more information on registering with us, see 

In addition, please contact our advice teams who are always happy to provide you with specific advice on the need to register. 

Attributing your spending to the different parts of the UK

Last updated: 23 September 2019

What spending is regulated?

If you spend money on one of the five activities during a regulated period, you need to apply two tests to your spending to decide if it is regulated: 

  • the purpose test
  • the public test

For your spending to be regulated, it must meet the purpose test.

In addition, for three types of activity, the public test must also be met.

The purpose test

The purpose test is met if your activity can reasonably be regarded as intended to influence voters to vote for or against:

  • one or more political parties
  • political parties or candidates that support or do not support particular policies
  • other categories of candidates, for example, candidates who went to a state school, or independent candidates (who are not standing in the name of a political party) 

This test applies to any of the five campaign activities.

The public test

The public test is met if your activity is aimed at the public or a section of the public.

Your members and committed supporters do not count as members of the public.

This test applies to:

  • election material
  • canvassing and market research
  • public rallies or public events

For more details on the public test, please see pages 7-8 of 

It is important that you think carefully when applying the tests for regulated spending, because there are electoral offences linked to failing to follow the rules. 

Most of the rest of this guidance document focuses on how to apply the purpose test to your campaign activities.
 

Last updated: 23 September 2019

Does your campaign activity meet the purpose test?

You can work out whether your campaign meets the purpose test by looking at the following:

  • whether it includes a call to action to voters
  • tone
  • context and timing
  • how a reasonable person would see your activity

These factors should be considered as a whole rather than individually. 

You can use the questions below to help you look at these factors. If, on balance, the answer to the questions is ‘yes’, then it is likely that your campaigning activity meets the purpose test. 

If one or two of the answers is ‘yes’, that does not necessarily mean that your campaign activity meets the purpose test. The questions are a guide for how to decide whether the activity is reasonably regarded as intended to influence voters in who they vote for.

Call to action to voters. 

Is your campaign asking people to vote for or against a particular political party, parties or category of candidate at an upcoming election? Can it reasonably be seen as implicitly asking them to? Would someone think that your campaign is asking them to? 

It is unlikely that a public campaign without an explicit or implicit call to action to voters will meet the purpose test.

Tone. 

Are you negative or positive towards: 

  • a political party or parties, 
  • a category of candidate, or 
  • a policy closely and publicly associated with a party or category of candidate?

Context and timing. 

Context:

Are you campaigning on a policy that will make a voter think of a particular party or category of candidates? For example:

  • Does the policy clearly represent an area of difference between political parties that the voters you are targeting are likely to be aware of? 
  • Are the policy and political parties’ views on it prominent in public debate at the time that you design and launch your campaign?
  • Are you campaigning as a reaction to a policy or position of a political party? 

Timing:

Did your campaign start close to the date of an election? The closer the election is, the more likely it is that a reasonable person would think that your campaign is intended to influence people to vote for or against a political party, parties or category of candidate. 

If your campaign has been running for a long time prior to the election, it is less likely that a reasonable person would think it is aimed at the election.

How would a reasonable person see your activity?

Would a reasonable person think your campaign is intended to influence people to vote for or against a political party, parties or category of candidate at an upcoming election?
 

Last updated: 23 September 2019

Purpose test: Intention

When you intend something, you can in some circumstances be reasonably regarded as having a different intention, or a further intention.

The primary intention of your campaign may not be to influence voters. For example, you might run a campaign with one or more of the following intentions: 

  • raising awareness of an issue
  • influencing political parties to adopt a policy in their manifestos
  • campaigning for or against government legislation
  • providing information to voters
  • encouraging people to register to vote
  • encouraging people to vote, but not for anyone in particular

A campaign that can be reasonably regarded as having one of these intentions will not meet the purpose test unless it can also be reasonably regarded as having the intention to influence voters to vote for or against a political party or category of candidates.

Even if your primary intention is something else, your campaign will still meet the purpose test if it can be reasonably regarded as intended to influence voters to vote for or against a political party or category of candidates. 

For example, suppose for example your intention is to influence political parties to adopt a policy. If you go about this by identifying and promoting parties and candidates who have already adopted the policy, then this will meet the purpose test.

Last updated: 23 September 2019

Purpose test: Campaigning on an issue

Campaigns that mention political parties or candidates

In almost all cases, an activity will meet the purpose test if it:

  • explicitly promotes political parties or candidates who support your campaign’s aims
  • implicitly promotes some parties or candidates over others, for example by setting out or comparing the merits of the positions of political parties or candidates on a policy

Campaigns that do not mention political parties or candidates

If your campaign does not mention candidates, parties, or elections, then your spending is less likely to be regulated. This is because on the balance of the factors - in particular ‘call to action to voters’ and ‘tone’ – your activity is less likely to meet the purpose test.

In order for an activity to meet the test, the voter needs to know which way they are being persuaded to vote.

However, your campaign might identify a political party, parties, or group of candidates implicitly, without naming them. This could happen if a policy or issue is so closely and publicly associated with a party, parties or category of candidates that it is effectively a shorthand for them in your campaign.

In this case, your campaign will meet the purpose test if, after assessing all the factors, it is reasonable to regard your campaign activity on the policy as intended to influence voters to vote for or against those political parties or candidates.

Specific policies may be more likely than more general issues to be closely associated with parties or candidates.

Example: ‘Social care’ and the ‘dementia tax’ at the 2017 UK Parliamentary general election

Example: ‘Social care’ and the ‘dementia tax’ at the 2017 UK Parliamentary general election

‘Social care’ was a prominent issue at the time, but most prominent parties had a range of policies and positions on it. The general issue was not closely and publicly associated with any party or category of candidates. A campaign on social care would have been unlikely to meet the purpose test unless it specifically mentioned parties or candidates.

The ‘dementia tax’ was a particular clear and prominent policy of the Conservative and Unionist Party at the election, announced as part of their manifesto during the campaign. It was closely and publicly associated with them. A campaign against the dementia tax would have been much more likely to meet the purpose test on the balance of the factors – particularly because the very phrase ‘dementia tax’ is one that was coined and used by the Conservatives’ opponents in that election campaign.
 

Case studies from recent elections

Our case studies give examples of issues-based campaigns from recent elections and explain whether or not they met the purpose test:

Non-party campaigner case studies from recent elections

Last updated: 23 September 2019

What happens if the policy I have been campaigning on is adopted by a political party?

A political party may publicly adopt policies that you are already campaigning for or against.

If your campaign did not meet the purpose test before the party changed its position, your planned campaign remains unlikely to meet the test.

However, as a result of the party changing their position, you might enhance or increase your spending on the issue over what you originally planned.

In this case, the further campaign spending will be regulated if it can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or criticise the party.

As usual you should assess your campaign using the factors we have set out.

For example, if you welcome a political party’s commitment to a policy that you have campaigned on, and it is clear that you would welcome a commitment from any political party, this will typically not meet the purpose test.

Last updated: 23 September 2019

Purpose test: Charities and other organisations with limits on their political activities

Some organisations have restrictions on their political activities, for example in their constitution, or charities who are bound by charity law.

These organisations may find that abiding by these separate restrictions means that they are less likely to carry out activities that meet the purpose test.

This is because the restrictions mean that many of the sorts of campaigns that meet the purpose test are prohibited for those organisations.

For example, charities must remain independent of party politics and must not support a political party or candidate, or create a perception of support as a result of their actions or participation.

If you are a charity and abide by charity law and guidance from the relevant charity regulator, in most circumstances your campaign activity is unlikely to meet the purpose test. 

Part of UK Charity regulator Website link
England and Wales

 

Charity Commission for England and Wales

 

Scotland 
OSCR logo
OSCR
Northern Ireland
Charity Commission for Northern Ireland

 

Charity Commission of Northern Ireland

 

You will still need to be aware of the non-party campaigner rules in case your activities meet the purpose test. In some circumstances, charities can and do carry out campaign activity that is regulated under electoral law. In the recent past, for example the UK Parliamentary general elections in 2015 and 2017, charities have conducted campaigns that met the tests for regulated spending, and have registered with us in accordance with the rules.

Our case studies from recent elections provide examples of issues-based campaigning that will be helpful when applying the purpose test to your own campaigns.

If you are planning a campaign and you are still unsure how it fits in with the rules for non-party campaigners, please get in touch and we can provide advice.
 

Last updated: 23 September 2019

Purpose test: The regulated period in an early UK Parliamentary general election

The non-party campaigner rules under PPERA only apply in the period before certain elections. This is known as the ‘regulated period’.

Election type Length of regulated period
UK Parliamentary general elections 365 days before polling day

Scottish Parliamentary elections

National Assembly for Wales elections

Northern Ireland Assembly elections

European Parliamentary elections

4 months before polling day

In an unscheduled UK Parliamentary general election, such as the 2017 UK Parliamentary general election, the time between the election’s announcement and polling day is typically shorter than the length of the regulated period. When this happens, the regulated period will still run for 365 days. It will therefore have started before the election was announced.

This does not happen in unscheduled elections to the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales or Northern Ireland Assembly. It is a feature of early UK Parliamentary general elections.

Campaign activity before an election is announced

The retrospective nature of the regulated period may concern campaigners due to uncertainty about whether the rules apply. However, most campaign activity undertaken before an election is announced is unlikely to meet the purpose test.

First, many campaigns are purely issues-based rather than focusing on candidates or parties. Policies and issues may not be sufficiently closely and publicly associated with a party, parties or category of candidates for the campaign activity to meet the purpose test. This is especially true when the campaigns were intended to take place outside of an election period, since then they are less likely to have a call to action to voters, or even to mention parties or candidates.

Second, you are unlikely to be reasonably regarded as intending to influence people to vote in an election when you do not know or expect that the election is happening. Therefore, where this was the case, your activity is unlikely to have met the purpose test.

The likely exceptions to this are if either:

  • you ran campaigns which met the purpose test in a different election in the regulated period – for example you campaigned in local elections earlier in the year
  • you anticipated or made reference to the future election before it was announced – for example “Vote Conservative in the coming election”, or “Unseat MPs who voted for austerity”.

If you spend money on campaigning like this at any time, then you will need to keep a record of what you have spent. This is so that if an early UK Parliamentary general election is called, you will know how much regulated spending you have incurred in the regulated period.

Last updated: 23 September 2019

Staff costs and other overheads

You will need to include staff costs, as well as other overheads, where they are associated with your regulated activities.

Staff costs that are associated with your organisation’s general, non-campaign related activities do not count as regulated campaign spending.

If you have a member of staff working on regulated campaign activity as well as your organisation’s other work, you will need to count a proportion of the staff salary which reflects the time spent working on regulated campaign activities.

If your organisation already has an established way of apportioning these costs, you may decide to calculate staff costs incurred in relation to regulated campaign activities in the same way.

In each case you should make an honest and reasonable assessment of the amount you have spent, based on the facts. You should be able to explain what the assessment is based on.

Examples of calculating staff costs and overheads:

Example 1

A member of staff estimates that they spent half of their time working on regulated activity during the regulated period.

You treat half of what you pay that staff member during the regulated period as regulated spending.

Eg2 staff costs

Example 2

You are planning an online campaign that will meet the purpose and public tests.From your budgeting and team planning you have estimated in advance that your Campaigns team will spend 20% of their time working on it for three months of the regulated period.

If this estimate turns out to be correct, you count 20% of the staff costs for the Campaigns team for three months towards the spending on that online campaign.

Eg 3 staff costs

Example 3

Carrying out a canvassing campaign, your office telephone bills increase.

The increase in the telephone costs counts towards the regulated spending for your campaign.

You could estimate this increase by looking at your telephone bill at the same time last year, and calculating the extra you have spent this year.
 

Last updated: 23 September 2019

Joint campaigning

If you and another campaigner are incurring joint spending in a joint campaign, then the regulated spending by each campaigner counts towards the regulated spending total for both campaigners.

This is to stop campaigners combining their spending limits to avoid the rules.

What we mean by joint spending

We recognise that campaigners may come together to campaign in a variety of ways, and that these might change over the course of a campaign.

Under electoral law, joint spending means spending money on regulated campaign activities where there is a common plan or arrangement between one or more non-party campaigners.

You cannot be incurring joint spending if you are not planning on spending money – for example if the work is going to be done by volunteers.

You are unlikely to be incurring joint spending if you:

  • campaign on the same issue without a common plan or arrangement speak at another campaigner’s event without being involved in any other way
  • have informal discussions with another campaigner, or keep each other informed, in a way that does not involve decision-making or coordinating your plans
  • endorse another campaign without having any further involvement – for example if you:
    • sign a letter written by another campaigner
    • add your branding to another campaign
    • publicise your support for another campaign

You are likely to be incurring joint spending if:

  • you have joint advertising campaigns, leaflets or events
  • you coordinate your regulated campaign activity with another campaigner – for example, if you agree that you should each cover particular areas, arguments or voters
  • another campaigner can approve or has significant influence over your leaflets, websites, or other campaign activity

For more on the joint campaigning rules, please see 


 

Last updated: 30 September 2019