On Wednesday, 18th May 2016, the Queen’s Speech will announce the Government’s legislative programme for the coming year.
In the days that follow, this programme will be debated in the House, and then voted upon. Whilst the Fixed-Term Parliament Act 2011 now prevents a defeat on the Queen’s Speech from automatically constituting a Vote of No Confidence in the Government, this does not exclude the Opposition from relying upon a defeat on the Queen’s Speech as grounds to call for a Vote of No Confidence.
The Queen’s Speech is a defining moment in every Government’s legislative year, and public confidence in the Government and international confidence in the UK will falter if a defeat ensues. Thus, the Government’s majority in the House of Commons – and thereby its capacity to secure Commons’ approval for its legislative agenda – is critical.
Yet, as this defining moment in the Government’s legislative calendar looms, urgent questions as to legitimacy of the Government’s majority in the House of Commons are being asked in response to the Conservative Party Election Expenses Scandal.
Prior to the May 2015 General Election, there was a growing consensus that the Conservatives would fail to attain the majority they needed to form a Government.
This prospective failure gave rise to important constitutional questions as to the legitimacy of any non-majority party presuming to remain in Government, and further, whether the public would accept the legitimacy of such a government to take actions on behalf of the people. Some authoritative sources called for a review of the UK’s electoral processes, and suggested the necessity for a clearly defined, written British Constitution to resolve such lingering possibilities.
The BBC reported, May 2015:
“One of the big dynamics of the next parliament, I believe, will be a tension between what is legal, what is constitutional, what is precedented – and what the voters think is right and proper and legitimate.⁽¹⁾”
Nicola Sturgeon stated, May 2015:
“Surely a test of legitimacy … that must be applied is whether a government can build a majority and win support that reflects the whole of the UK.⁽²⁾”
Nationalism aside, this is surely the standard to which any party needs to be held in order to form a Government that can speak for the nation and has the electoral mandate to do so.
In the event, the Conservatives defied expectation and neatly side-stepped this constitutional concern by their securing of a working majority, albeit a slim one, of 17 seats⁽³⁾. This majority has been crucial to the Government’s legitimacy in Parliament and to include its capacity: to legislate; to function as the Executive; to claim higher authority over the other branches of state, such as the House of Lords and the Supreme Court; and to negotiate with other nations on the UK’s behalf.
However, a Channel 4 investigation, reveals evidence of Electoral impropriety on the part of the Conservatives in their securing of traditionally ‘unsafe’ marginal seats; this electoral tampering allegedly affects at least 30 key marginal seats now held by Conservative MPs⁽⁴⁾. The Police and Electoral Commission investigations are ongoing.
But for these key, now disputed, marginal wins, the Conservatives would be significantly short of a majority in Parliament.
This calls into question the legitimacy of the Government’s Parliamentary majority of 17. But for this majority, this Government could not exist as a majority Government, and would likely have had to resign post the 2015 election.
Thereby, the Government’s authority is impugned –
– and along with it, the validity of all governmental actions taken, and to be taken: executive, legislative, diplomatic, financial and constitutional.
An electoral mandate unlawfully gained is not a mandate, and thus, in turn, the validity of Parliamentary Supremacy, irrespective of Government, is also called into question; not only are there voices in the House of Commons speaking for the nation that ought not to be there, but of equal importance, there are voices absent who should be there, representing their constituents.
This omission interferes with not only the voting responsibilities of MPs, but also the duty of all MPs to speak on behalf of their Constituents, and thus the quality of debate and the balance of representations heard in the House is diminished.
This is aside from the undermining of the personal and professional integrity of the MPs involved, each of whom, under Electoral Commission regulations, are personally responsible for and thus liable for their own campaign expenditure⁽⁵⁾.
Channel 4 have produced evidence of alleged Conservative Party central office ‘double-dealings’ in the financing of local party campaigns, aimed at providing local candidates with an unfair financial advantage over their opponents⁽⁶⁾. It is a sad truth of modern politics, as has been so overwhelmingly demonstrated by the excesses of the American political system, that the greater the war-chest the greater the capacity to influence voters and to win elections: money = votes.
In order to retain electoral fairness and equality between party candidates, the Electoral Commission lays down strict and legally binding regulations as to the maximum campaign allowance permissible for each and every candidate⁽⁷⁾.
An abuse of this spending cap is an abuse of the electoral process, and with criminal liability attached.
To avoid confusion, the Electoral Commission provides clear and well-established rules as to the ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ of Election Spending.
The rules are not complicated:
“Candidate spending includes the costs of: … transport costs for you or your campaigners. For example, hire cars … accommodation … administrative costs …⁽⁸⁾”
The Electoral Commission also provides clear and well-established rules as to the distinction between Candidate Spending and National Party Spending: “An item of spending will fall into one category or the other: items that promote the candidate are likely to count towards the candidate’s spending limit; items that promote the party are likely to be covered by the rules on party campaign expenditure.⁽⁹⁾”
The rules are clear.
However, Channel 4’s investigation into Conservative Party Electoral Practices reveals compelling evidence that during the course of the 2015 General Election, the Conservative Party violated these established Electoral rules on Candidate Spending.
The conduct complained of includes the undeclared bolstering of local candidate campaign funds with National Party resources, such as, the financing of transport – the so-called Battle-buses – and overnight accommodation for out of area activist campaigners, shipped in and acting under the instruction of Central Party office, and importantly, directed specifically to canvass for identified Local Candidates⁽¹º⁾.
The money spent by the National Party in securing local Conservative candidates’ advantage over their opponents took local campaign expenditure over the Electoral Commission’s cap from, in some cases, excesses of a few hundred, to an excess of £18,973 in South Thanet (against Nigel Farage), a string of Lib Dem held seats in the South West, where campaign coffers were boosted (but not declared) by the uniform sum of £2,460 each, and a series of Labour-Conservative marginals whose local parties received extra campaigning support valued at £2,045 or more, per seat⁽¹¹⁾.
Any undeclared spending is of itself a breach of Electoral Commission rules. The Conservative Party central office claims this was an oversight on their part⁽¹²⁾.
In response to the alleged violation of local candidate spending caps, a Spokesperson for Prime Minister, David Cameron claimed that no overspend had occurred since the spending complained of properly belonged to National Party campaigning, and not local party campaigns⁽¹³⁾. However, the Electoral Rules are clear, and evidence produced by Channel 4 indicates that the activist campaigners funded by central office had been provided with scripts, directing them to specifically name and promote local candidates, thereby properly constituting a local party expense.
Ten Police Forces around the country are investigating affected Constituencies within their area⁽¹⁴⁾. The Electoral Commission is also investigating.
These investigations have been delayed by the Conservative Party who failed to disclose campaign expenses documents, despite their legal obligations to do so under the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Further, they ignored two Statutory Notices issued by the Electoral Commission to hand over these papers. This led to the Electoral Commission necessarily taking the unprecedented step to secure a High Court Order against the Conservative Party requiring immediate disclosure.
Jon Snow of C4 news noted,12th May 2016:
“[This is the] 1st time in history that the Electoral Commission has started legal proceedings against any political party⁽¹⁵⁾”.
We now await the Commission’s findings. In the meantime, failures on the part of the Conservative party to cooperate with Police and Electoral Commission investigations, further fuel the public perception of corrupt electoral practice on their part.
This, in circumstances where these claims, if proven, call into question the integrity of the Government’s majority, thus impugning the Government’s authority to act, and thereby, the validity of the Government’s legislative agenda to be announced in the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday.
If this matter pertained to the Judiciary, we would not be having this conversation: the Judiciary are keenly aware of the principle that:
“[It is] of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done,
but should be manifestly and undoubtedly seen to be done⁽¹⁶⁾”.
So grave and manifest is this importance, and without which Public Confidence in the judiciary would fall, that any violation of this judicial principle would give rise to at least 30 resignation letters and judicial wigs, neatly stacked and without question.
Similarly, it is imperative that Democracy is not only served,
but should be manifestly and undoubtedly seen to be served.
A government elected by corrupt practice is without legitimacy.
Such a Government cannot claim to either represent the people it is charged to serve, or to have the mandate of the people to act in their name.
This Government, with its now disputed majority:
- Has negotiated the UK’s position within the EU;
- Has continued their Austerity measures;
- Is re-organising Electoral Constituency boundaries;
- Is diminishing the powers of the Upper Chamber – the House of Lords – in a manner which compromises the effectiveness of our system of checks and balances.
- Is seeking to complete TTIP negotiations;
- Is planning to abolish the Human Rights Act, due it being a perceived interference with the Government’s legislative plans⁽¹⁷⁾;
- Is fundamentally altering the financing and/or governance of national institutions, including The NHS, The BBC and State Education.
- Is introducing measures which will potentially impinge upon civil liberties such as the Investigatory Powers Bill and Anti-Extremism measures;
- Has committed the UK to military action in Syria;
- Are set, if necessary, to negotiate the UK’s withdrawal from the Europe Union;
- Are set, if necessary, to negotiate Scotland’s withdrawal from the UK, in the event of a British withdrawal from the European Union;
- Are set to make the “Main Gate” decision to renew the UK’s nuclear weapons system, Trident.
Such Governmental actions have long-term consequences for us all, regardless of the validity or otherwise of these actions. It is concerning that the Government’s mandate for these undertakings is founded upon a majority which appears to have been garnered by way of corrupt dealings, whether by default or design.
On Wednesday the Queen’s Speech, outlining the Government’s legislative intentions for the coming year, will be presented to Parliament, debated and voted upon.
The Government’s currently disputed majority is likely to be determinative.
We, in the UK, entrust to our Government all the powers of state: to make decisions about our day to day lives; to negotiate our place within the world at large; to act in our best interests, not only in the short-term – for the duration of one Government – but further, to make decisions and pass legislation with the power to affect our futures and the futures of our children for decades to come.
Yet, the UK does not have a recognisable Constitution which safeguards the populus from either the excesses of Government, or from Governmental tamperings with the balance of power between the branches of state. Nor do we have any Constitutional protection of our rights and freedoms, which would safeguard against any authoritarian ambitions or electoral corruptions which may be inflicted upon us by passing majority Governments.
As noted by Richard Gordon, an authority in the field of Constitutional Law:
“The logic used to defend Parliamentary Sovereignty from its critics is that we, the people, get the chance under the rules of the democracy game at least once every five years to vote the scoundrels out. Yet these rules, the lynch pin of our modern constitutional arrangements, are only the current electoral framework devised by Parliament. They do not reflect any popular consensus as to the scope of Parliament’s authority. There never was a Magna Carta for the people; ….⁽¹⁸⁾”
UK Parliamentary Supremacy and Governmental legitimacy is founded upon Trust, and Trust alone: a gentleman’s agreement that if we, the public, place our trust in a Government, this Government will, at all times, conduct itself with honour and integrity, and will not only serve, but will be seen to serve the electorate.
If the Government is to avoid a constitutional crisis over its authority to act, the Conservative Party must do its utmost to cooperate with both Police and Electoral Commission inquiries in order to clarify – at their earliest and most urgent opportunity – the validity or otherwise of the Government’s majority in the House of Commons.
For the Conservatives to avoid inquiries by way of stalling tactics, such as the withholding of documents, demonstrates not only a gross disregard for electoral rules, but further, a contempt and disregard for the legitimacy of their right to govern. This in turn raises grave questions as regards the Government’s fitness to govern, per se.
The nation Trusts that the Government will have resolved the matter of its own legitimacy to govern in time for Her Majesty’s Speech on Wednesday.
Sources & Further Reading
¹ Election 2015: The politics of legitimacy, April 2015: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2015-32382328
² Nicola Sturgeon questions legitimacy of UK government without Scottish MPs, May 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/may/04/nicola-sturgeon-questions-legitimacy-of-uk-government-without-scottish-mps
³ Current State of the Parties, May 2016: http://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/mps/current-state-of-the-parties/
⁴ Election Expenses Exposed, by Michael Crick, May 2016: http://www.channel4.com/news/election-expenses-exposed
⁵ Candidate or Agent, The Electoral Commission: http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/i-am-a/candidate-or-agent
⁶ Ibid. (fn.4)
⁷ The Electoral Commission: http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/
⁸ Spending & Donations, The Electoral Commission: http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/173074/UKPGE-Part-3-Spending-and-donations.pdf
¹º Ibid. (fn.4)
¹¹ Ibid. (fn.4)
¹² Tory minister plays down police inquiry into 2015 election expenses, May 2016: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/may/06/conservatives-campaign-spending-2015-general-election-inquiry-greg-clark; cf. Conservatives admit failure to declare election expenses, May 2016: http://www.channel4.com/news/battlebus-conservatives-admit-election-expenses
¹³ Ibid. (fn.12)
¹⁴ Police asked to investigate Conservative election letters, May 2016: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-36284335
¹⁵ Jon Snow, Twitter, May 2016: https://twitter.com/jonsnowC4/status/730750882015531008?lang=en-gb
¹⁶ Lord Chief Justice Hewart, 1924, Politician & Judge
¹⁷ UK must leave European convention on human rights, says Theresa May, April 2016: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/apr/25/uk-must-leave-european-convention-on-human-rights-theresa-may-eu-referendum
¹⁸ Without a Constitution, We Are Trapped in a False Legitimacy of Democratic Consent, 2013: