In poor democracies, votes are bought directly. In rich ones, money is spent to secure votes. Instead of being bribed, voters are subjected to a deluge of advertising, rounds of door-knocking and incessant social media messaging. Laws in richer democracies are meant to be tightly enforced. A check on UK election spending is that contributions have to be declared correctly. That is why the decision to fine the Conservative party a record £70,000 for “numerous failures” in accurately reporting campaign spend at the 2015 general election and three byelections in 2014 is so important. It is a wrong compounded by cover-up. The Tories “unreasonably” failed to cooperate with the Electoral Commission, which acted after a Channel 4 News report.
Foolishly, David Cameron displayed not a hint of contrition, claiming he had won “fairly and squarely”. He ran a shambolic operation. It’s too early to say whether a criminal offence has been committed. Any prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that this is dishonesty not just non-compliance. The cost of perverting elections will have to be raised so that parties do not think it is a price worth paying to win. Money buys access to shape policies. Without strict rules and harsh penalties, politicians will be tempted to win office by mortgaging the future to an investing elite.