As the national press has reported, the Conservative party is spending a huge amount of money on ‘wraparounds’ – additional pages to form the front and back page of a newspaper – in key General Election constituencies.
The wraparounds have been seen in across England and Wales (reports of any in Scotland have not yet reached the SKWAWKBOX) in marginal constituencies and are designed to look like a normal newspaper front-page. Many appeared last week as voters went to the ballot box for the local elections, causing a rash of complaints to publishers. The Conservatives are said to be planning a series of wraparounds in target constituencies in the run-up to 8 June.
The SKWAWKBOX can exclusively reveal that the wording of the ads – many of which have appeared in constituencies where Tory MPs and personnel are already under investigation for alleged election spending fraud in 2015 – may again create issues with the allocation and reporting of the spending and to the breaching of candidate spending limits.
Below are images of the front and back page of a wraparound that went out on The Standard, a weekly local Cheshire publication that includes the marginal Weaver Vale (WV) constituency in its distribution area. WV was narrowly won in 2015 by Tory Graham Evans. Mr Evans was one of the MPs whose electoral expenses were under investigation by police, although controversially his case was not referred to the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service):
The Tories are apparently trying to avoid the cost of these wraparounds – thousands of pounds for each one – being allocated as a local expense by not mentioning the name of the local candidate.
However, even mentioning ‘my Conservative candidate in your local area’ would be enough to qualify the expense as a local one, at least in part.
However, according to the SKWAWKBOX’s conversation with the Electoral Commission’s (EC) press office this afternoon, the EC rules on election spending would still require at least a quarter of the expense to be declared as local spending rather than national, as page 17 of the EC’s paper on splitting campaign expenses makes clear:
An EC spokesperson told the SKWAWKBOX that the issue has already been raised with the EC and that its Campaign Monitoring unit is aware, although a formal monitoring request has not yet been made.
Declarations of electoral spending will not be made until after the election is over, but if the Tories run regular adverts – wraparounds or others – with this kind of wording between now and the election, the costs per publication are likely to be in the tends of thousands of pounds.
Given that – as the EC confirmed to this blog – the legal limit on local election spending will be around £15,000 per constituency, even a quarter of the amount spent on these ads, if properly allocated, are likely to consume a large percentage of a candidate’s legal spending, drastically reducing the amount that can be legally spent in those areas on other campaign activities.
If the Tories wish to avoid a further breach of electoral spending laws, they will need to be careful both to account for this spending properly and to ensure that the correct proportion of the cost of these wraparounds is deducted from their local campaign budgets.
The SKWAWKBOX contacted Conservative Campaign HQ (CCHQ) with the following:
As just discussed, looking at the wraparounds that the Conservatives have been using on local publications around the country, the final page of these refers to voting for ‘my Conservative candidate in your local area’. According to the Electoral Commission, this would be enough to qualify that page as local expenditure even if the candidate’s name is missing.
In view of this, please provide answers to the following by return:
1. What is the average cost of a 4-page wraparound?
2. How many of these wraparounds are planned per local publication/area?
3. Is the Conservative party planning to declare at least a quarter of the expenditure as local in accordance with Electoral Commission rules?
To which a Conservative spokesperson provided the following response:
Newspaper advertising covers are a long established form of campaigning that are [sic] used by all political parties. We are proud to support local newspapers.
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