Our democracy is undermined

There are good reasons why there’s a spending limit and a requirement for full financial transparency during elections and referendums. Those rules are there to ensure that no party can win by simply outspending their opponents and that no unsavoury characters or foreign powers can sway political parties with large donations, for their own personal gain.

It’s meant to level the playing ground so that those parties with millions in their war chest, those who represent big business and the aristocracy or those who have members who sit as trustees of large funds they can dip into, can’t use their financial advantages when up against those parties who represent the average person and survive on membership fees.

It’s meant to allow the voices and ideas of all parties to be heard at an equal volume and give voters a free and balanced chance to hear all sides of an argument before they make an informed vote, not to have that chance reduced by a drowning out of competition through an overwhelming number of leaflets, posters, PR campaigns, social media and TV adverts from one side.

What has happened in recent years is a stepping up of cheating by wealthier parties who have realized, when they’ve been fined, that the Electoral Commission won’t do much to them and that the police are not well equipped to track down MPs or MSPs who don’t declare their full spending.

The fines are affordable, cheating gets results so it’s worth the risk. There’s a gaping hole between the rules the Electoral Commission oversee and that of criminal law, within which these parties can easily manipulate their declared expenses.

Right now the Electoral Commission has issued a report advising that Vote Leave broke campaign spending laws. They have fined Vote Leave and reported them to the police. It’s a small fine, on the scale of things. Will anyone’s head roll? Probably not.

An investigation by BBC Spotlight Northern Ireland reported the practices of Richard Cook, the chairman of the Constitutional Research Council and former vice chairman of the Conservative Party in Scotland. It revealed that Cook was behind the DUP’s £435,000 donation during the EU referendum, and has “a trail of involvement in illegal activity and foreign money”.

The Scottish Tories refuse to explain a £320,000 donation from the non-transparent Scottish Unionist Association Trust. The LibDems have also been fined multiple times for under-declaring their electoral expenses across the UK.

In Orkney and Shetland during last year’s General Election, the LibDems bombarded us with at least 13 leaflets (including letters and newspaper inserts) in a six week period.

You may think that people don’t pay attention to leaflets but the LibDems wouldn’t be sending so many of them out if it didn’t produce the effect they’re looking for.

What they’re doing, in a place like ours, without local TV and only one weekly printed newspaper (that the LibDems already have a rolling political column in) is effectively drowning out all other political voices.

Mr Carmichael’s electoral expenses are very interesting indeed and I would encourage anyone with a curiosity to inspect them (copies can be obtained from Orkney Council for a small fee). Compare them with the other candidate’s declarations. Someone really needs to ask questions about his electoral expenses. Maybe we can do that at an Althing debate?

The Tories and the LibDems are buying elections. Our current electoral rules are inadequate. If the less wealthy parties are the only ones playing by the rules, then our democracy is truly under threat.

We need an Electoral Commission with enough power to prevent abuse, more robust rules and a special department of the police who understand electoral law, how it’s being flaunted and how to prosecute it.

Until then, the public needs to be aware of what’s actually going on and to judge for themselves at voting time.

Angela Sutherland
Shetland SNP branch secretary