Bending the rules

This week a new shop opened up on the High Street. Unlike the others, though, it is actually part of a Scotland wide chain, passing itself off as a local independent. I refer, of course, to the Yes shop in Montrose High Street.

With just over 4 months to go to the referendum, the campaign is started to ratchet up. We’ve seen an increase in negative campaigning from Yes, and the polls have tightened slightly. And across Scotland, local campaigners are opening up shops to create a presence for the Yes campaign. However, there is a legal question over how this expenditure should be accounted for.

In the original legislation, passed by the Scottish Parliament, the referendum was to be policed by the impartial UK-wide body the Electoral Commission, which sets the rules for all elections and referenda in the UK. There were to be two lead campaigns (now confirmed to be Yes Scotland and Better Together) who will have expenditure limits of £1.5million while other bodies had to register if they spent over £10,000, and were limited to £150,000. The political parties had their own limits, just as in elections.

A feature of the campaign has been the creation of local groups by both sides, in order to co-ordinate activity, engage activists and promote the message. However, each campaign has taken a different approach. Better Together has required that local groups should not open their own bank account, nor incur any expense without informing HQ – all donations are to be reported as well. The No campaign is determined to play by the rules, stringently. Yes Scotland, on the other hand, seems to have laid down no guidelines and made no requirements of their local campaigns.

Why is this important? Well, it would be quite easy for these local groups to spend several thousand pounds each – and across Scotland that could total hundreds of thousands of pounds – if not millions. And all that expenditure would not be regulated, despite what the rules say.

The Electoral Commission guidance is quite clear. “Campaigners can work together if they wish to do so. Some combined spending will count towards the limits for each campaigner involved. This is to stop people getting around the spending limits by coordinating several campaigns at the same time.

“However, combined spending will not count towards the limits for campaigners working with a designated lead campaign group, other than towards the limit of the lead campaign group itself”

“There are spending rules that apply if you or a campaigner that you are working with spends money as part of a coordinated plan or arrangement. We call these the ‘working together’ rules. ‘Working together’ means spending money as a result of an agreed plan or arrangement between one or more campaigners during the referendum period…”

That seems pretty clear to me. It goes on. “…you will be very likely to be working together if: you have joint advertising campaigns, leaflets or events; you coordinate your activity with another campaigner – for example, if you agree that you should each cover particular areas, arguments or voters.” [My emphasis] Well, that seems to cover having local groups to spread the message.

So its quite clear, expenditure by these local groups, using the Yes Scotland branding, colours, logo etc and distributing material and leaflets from Yes Scotland should have their expenditure counted towards the Yes Scotland total of £1.5million. Even if the use of the shop was given for free, the campaign will need to treat this as a donation in kind – and the market value will come off that limit.

Now you might think that’s not a great deal. But add them up. The cost of a high street shop in Montrose is at least £500 a month – possibly more due to location. For say 4 months, that’s £2000. It won’t take many of these to have 100 across Scotland, and before you know it, there’s £200,000 spent on renting shops. Again, the figure may well be higher due to higher costs in other areas.

So that’s at least £200,000 spent to get around the rules designed to limit spending.

Why should it matter? It matters because it is subtle advertising that makes yes look ubiquitous. It makes it look like the winning side (its not – not a single opinion poll has shown Yes in front) and it makes it look like the side you should be backing. The rules are there to create a level playing field. Its bad enough that the Scottish Government are using taxpayers money to fund a propaganda programme, but this is just blatant cheating. The Electoral Commission needs to act now, before the regulated period starts.

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