2010 election spending

The Electoral Commission, as it must every year, publishes the election campaign spending and donations to every political party and candidate , in handy (ish) spreadsheets. Some of the finer details are certainly worth grappling with the sporadic dummy-spitting of Excel’s filters and formatting…

Let’s look at the broad picture first. The general election of 2010 was as much ‘The Expenses Election” as “the expensive one”. The top 200 donations to candidates – not all of them winners, it must be said – totals over £7 million. It takes only 200 candidates to reach six-and-a-half-million pounds in spending. Some “digging down” uncovers the extremes people go to when candidature comes calling; James Thornton, who stood as an Independent in Poplar and Limehouse, spent £269 per vote to come 10th. His final total of nearly £16,000 is staggering.

So to is the percentage of money spent as a proportion of the “aggregate limit”, the legal upper amount allowed for each candidate in their seat. Stephen Lloyd (Liberal Democrat, Eastbourne), spent 99.62% of his allowed amount en route to winning; Christopher Philip (Conservative, Hampstead and Kilburn) didn’t win despite clocking up 98.93% of his maximum allowance. In the case of Stephen Lloyd, the total was just over £39,700.

Ten Labour candidates have who finished second have “total spent” amounts over £30,000. These range from Michael Foster at £38,645.97 (Hastings and Rye) to Jim Kinght (South Dorset) at £31,150.55. Both are former MPs. Both have ‘total donations’ over £30,000.

For the Liberal Democrats, riding at the time a wave of optimism (oh what far away lands that all seems….), the number of candidates topping £30,000 without winning the seat in the “total spend” column is 21, over twice the Labour amount, running from Lynne Beaumont at £30,457.63 (in Folkestone and Hythe, a distant target seat at one point) and up to Martin Tod in Winchester (at a whopping £40,382.72, more than 95% his allotted total). I’ll leave these facts here, you can make up your own mind on things…

Now let us turn to the British National Party, whose focus at the time was the ‘Battle for Barking” led by leader Nick Griffin. The total spend of their candidates who registered any costs adds up to £197,771. This does not include his personal cost of £22,498.77, an amount which is three times more than the next listed BNP failed candidate. (Let’s not forget that Griffin finished third in Barking, blaming the population change of that constituency for his failure).

Another interesting factor about the BNP results has been highlighted by a political forum I visit. Forty-four candidates lodge exactly £800 “total spend”, a further 142 put down their “total spend” at bob-on £400. Is this coincidence? Was Thomas Main (Glasgow North, position 6th) as exact with his financies as David Lomas (Ashton-under-Lyne, 4th)? Was this amount handed to each candidate in non-target seats (that is, anywhere outside Barking)?

Is this very good business sense from the BNP or accounting with a lot of scribbles and unexplained approximations? Is it further coincidence that two National Front candidates – Terry Williams in Birmingham Erdington, and Paul Morris in Birmingham Yardley, also lodged £400 each “total spend” ?

The other side of the financial details deals with political parties as entities in their own right. This tells a lot about the financial health (or otherwise) of the party machines.

Simple things first, then, and that means the column marked “Total” under the heading “Payments Made”. The top 5 are:

* Conservative Party £15,588,708
* Labour Party £7,131,811
* Liberal Democrats £4,718,503
* UK Independence Party £640,877
* Green Party £318,534

This shows the immense paying power of the “mainstream” parties, diverting huge funds (by British standards) into the electoral process. For the Tories, this mammoth amount includes over £6 million on “unsolicited material”, the much more glossy and professional leaflets pushed through your doors. For Labour, who were once on the backfoot with leafleting and doorstep politics, this “unsolicited material” devoured £4.1 million, almost exactly 50% of their total expenditure.

By far the “mighty” party for leafleting – no Lib Dem worth their salt are ever without FOCUS newsletters – the total in this column is £3.05 million.

Tellingly for the Lib Dems, their total for “rallies and events” is under £100,000, whereas Labour spent 8.5 times as much. Only in one regard do the Lib Dems come out as bigger spenders than Labour – “Canvassing and Market Research”, with £12,000 the difference between near-enough half-a-million each on phonebanks. If ever there was a sign that the letterbox isn’t king, this is it. Expect such shifts and changes in electoral campaigning to continue.

Other than stretching my self-taught knowledge of Pivot Tables, where does this leave our understanding of British politics today?

One – and it’s a big one, fnarr fnarr – the amount of money dished out can be explained purely as a consequence of the election being regarded as a) close (and in the end, t’was close), and b) somehow more relevent given all MPs needed to cleanse their reputations and c) somehow more relevant given Esther Rantzen was losing in Luton South (taking of whom, £24,000 spent to finish 4th and have “ESTHER LOSES LUTON SOUTH” appear on the bottom of the BBC News screen). Okay, maybe just “a” and “b”.

The game is never outside the reach of non-party members, though it certainly seems so even under the unique circumstances of 2010. Parties are driven to the brink of bankruptcy by American-style races to the top of the spending tree, desperate to flush more members’ money into risographs and coffee mornings. The overall consequence has not been greater confidence in the political process.

It will be interesting to see what will come from two pressing economic concerns – the diminishing donations into political parties and the general attitude towards political spending. These stats could be the last of their kind…