Fraser Nelson makes some important points in today's Telegraph article “Elected Police Commissioners: a criminal waste of a good idea“, even if a few of the details are off (the Badger Party lady is no longer standing). A section worth focussing on is this :- “To the Tories’ horror, the race has become party political. Labour is fielding several well-funded candidates. Some policemen who wanted to stand have dropped out, saying they can’t afford the cost of campaigning, estimated at anything up to £50,000.“
Some might contest his first point. Were the Conservatives not the first party to indicate they would be fielding candidates under a party label? Well, yes, I think they were. But I'll back up what Fraser says here. 18 months ago it was clear to me that the party was really in two minds about whether to put forward candidates or to wait for credible independents to emerge who they could then back. As time went on there was, shall we say, no rush to a decision, and in the end of the day, as the selection and resignation of a candidate who refused to join the party showed, there seems to have been an effort to merge the two options, in an effort to have the best of both worlds, which sometimes gives you the worst of them instead.
His third point is also telling, though it should be noted that it is not just police officers who have been tested by the funding requirement. The Conservatives genuinely wanted successful independents to stand – that is evidenced by Theresa May's secret meeting with Simon Weston, followed by the sudden launch of his campaign. But someone seems to have missed that the giant constituencies, combined with the lack of provision of a candidate's booklet to electors, would mean that any Independent would have to be able to lay their hands on significant amounts of cash in order to get any sort of message to voters. Yes, the parties have the same problem, but that's why they already have in place fundraising arrangements and volunteers to hit the doorsteps. Is this a problem with the notion of 'successful Independent'? Success is something not best measured in pounds and pence, and we shouldn't assume that the best candidates would be able to sing along with the Mitt Romney parody above, and the line “you should elect me 'cause I got so much mon-ey“.
A small number of Independents are spending away though. Mervyn Barrett in Lincolnshire has a professional campaign team, campaign video, newspaper adverts, and DVDs being distributed, with money from…. well, Mervyn ain't saying. And Mervyn doesn't have to say – the only funding spent outside the election period that needs to be declared is any donations from a single source above £1,500 – but that doesn't apply to people who aren't in a political party or elected office already, so Mervyn has an advantage for once over his party opponents.
And that brings us to the second point that you may have thought I skipped over – those “well-funded Labour candidates“. I have already expressed my surprise that TopOfTheCops regular Clive Grunshaw is the only Labour candidate in the country to have declared mailshots of over £1,500 in value funded by a trades-union in his selection campaign. Other candidates had union backing, mailshots funded from somewhere, and the same problem to solve, namely how to fund a message or two to the several thousand local members of the Labour party who were doing the choosing. Did none of them really rely on that level of support from a union?
So I asked the Electoral Commission to take a look, and they are doing so. I wasn't going to name names, as I genuinely do not know whether any funds have changed hands, never mind whether anything improper has occurred, but I note that there is an email in circulation among Councillors in South Yorkshire which states of Councillor Shaun Wright that, as of last Friday at the latest, “the Electoral Commission are satisfied there is no case to answer.” That struck me as odd, as only yesterday the Electoral Commission told me of the same case “We can confirm that our case review is on-going and that we have not yet reached a determination.“
I'll be honest – I would find it as worrying for a candidate to accept any funding at all from a union that represents employees in the organisation they intend to lead as I would find it if a candidate was taking money from a company with designs on winning contracts from that Commissioner. It revives in me a sense of horror I experienced over 20 years ago, when I first looked at US campaign finance, which I thought shocking even though at that time a Presidential candidate's expenditure was not measured in billions of dollars, as it is today.
But my concern is not simply that Commissioners may end up beholden to interests other than the public interest. I am not suggesting Mitt Romney has done something wrong. With his personal wealth he would not need to, but that very wealth is what has sustained him through two shots at the Republican nomination for President, in my view to the cost of better candidates, such as Mike Huckabee.
I am worried by every step we take down the path of limiting elected office to those who have the cash or can get it from some vested interest. As the Returning Officers take the last of the £5,000 deposits today, it strikes me that this is a trend in politics that we need to avoid.