As their flouting of electoral law was revealed…
Originally published here
Political campaigning has evolved considerably over the course of the past decade, with the rise of social media and group chats. Technology has allowed political parties, and their associated campaign groups, to organise themselves and their activists far more effectively than ever before. As ever, though, particularly when we are caught up in the ‘rush’ of working hard for a cause that we believe in very passionately, we may find that the morality has yet to catch up with the flying fingers on the keyboard.
We see further evidence of this in the way that the left-wing Labour campaign group Momentum organised themselves during the recent General Election campaign, as revealed by Wolves of Westminster last week. We can’t know how the Electoral Commission will proceed with the information passed to them. What we do know is that a lot of people could potentially find themselves in trouble.
Personally, I hope that they don’t. But last week’s story should serve as a cautionary and, perhaps, salutary tale to political activists of all colours.
Let’s just consider what happened here. A major political campaign group came along and told people to print off leaflets on their behalf, and hand those out. What’s more, they were expected to pay for these leaflets themselves, or to accept donations of other activists’ money to cover the costs. Momentum itself was not willing to cover them, presumably because they might have risked breaching their authorised spending limits if they did. Given how much of a struggle things have been for some families since the financial crisis, though, this money might otherwise have been better spent on the weekly shop.
But these leaflets didn’t contain the details of who, exactly, had printed them. That might seem like a mere technicality, but the laws we have in place around this are there for a reason. During an election campaign, anyone could be distributing material that contains blatant falsehoods and misleads voters. That could be a problem, and in this country we take the matter of who is elected to govern us seriously enough to create laws about how they get elected. These are there to make sure that any electoral material can be traced back to its source, and that the details of who paid for its publication are transparently on record – this is known as the ‘imprint’. As I said, those laws are in place for good reasons.
In fact, we take it so seriously that distributing political leaflets during an election campaign without these details is a crime – and it’s not a trivial one. The liability attaches to both the ‘promoter’, being the person or organisation on whose behalf it is published, and the ‘printer’, being the person who printed the material or otherwise arranged for its printing. What’s more, the fine that goes with this is unlimited – which tells you that, in the eyes of the law, this is hardly deemed a trifling matter.
So, let’s say you’re one of these activists. You’re quite a big fan of this campaigning organisation, because it shares your political beliefs. It wants to see the same kind of government as you do, and you know just how much of a difference that could make to ordinary people’s lives. When they come along and ask you to help the cause, you’re only too glad to roll up your sleeves. But unfortunately, this time, what they have just directed you to do is a crime. Not only are they liable under the law for that crime, but so are you.
And the Electoral Commission, if they can identify you, could in principle order you to hand over as much of your own money as a judge deems fit. If you don’t, or can’t, you’ll have the bailiffs at the door. If you’re refusing to pay ‘on principle’, you could even go to prison. Not exactly what most people imagined the outcome of their recent political activism was going to be.
Now, personally, I don’t think they’re going to do that. We’ve all got friends or family of a different political colour, and this could potentially have happened to anyone. I don’t think there’s any appetite out there for having hundreds of ordinary people – who were only ‘obeying orders’, as the old phrase goes – prosecuted up and down the country.
I do think, though, that somebody, somewhere at Momentum will have known about this. If you’re aware enough to know you need to put the promoter’s details on a leaflet you’re designing, then you also know you’re supposed to put the printer’s details there. The only reason not to, in this case, would be because you know it could be anyone. You should also know that that’s against the law. Momentum does have a legal team, to which this matter was referred after it was repeatedly challenged in the group chats, albeit not about the imprint specifically. Either way, it’s a pretty disgraceful way for a campaigning organisation that should have known better – and quite possibly did – to behave. At the very least, Momentum should be apologising profusely to all its activists.
So, somebody’s head somewhere should be rolling, and I do think it’s quite appropriate for Momentum Campaign (Services) Ltd and any staff involved in this, who should have been aware, to be hauled before the Electoral Commission to explain themselves – along with, potentially, a court of law. The Commission did tell Wolves that they were aware of this happening in the past and had previously issued advice, but that unfortunately there were “areas of electoral law that have not kept pace with the way that campaigning has changed”. Since the law has been broken, there should be redress. Perhaps this would be a good test case, to drive the point home for others in the future.
But for the activists themselves, it should merely be a lesson. Just because one of these big political organisations comes along and tells you to spend your own money on doing something you’re not sure about, that doesn’t mean they’re right to do so. There could be some pretty serious consequences, not just for them, but for you too. There are places you can go to find out for yourself if things don’t seem quite right, and people like the Electoral Commission do issue guidance. You can also speak to Citizens Advice for general queries.
It doesn’t matter what political colour you are. Personally, I’m blue. You may be red, or anything else. I don’t care. But please, everyone, do be careful in the future.