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  May 10, 2017

UK Conservative Party Members Accused of Violating Campaign Funding Law

Conservative party members of parliament are accused of obscuring party campaign spending shortly before the national election explains independent journalist Steve Topple
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Steve Topple is an independent journalist, and political and social commentator. Covering a varying range of topics from domestic politics, economics and social/ethnological issues to the Middle East, Europe and Russia, via pop culture and music/literary reviews - his opinions have been cited as "ultra-left and sectarian" by Owen Jones, while many consider him a firebrand of the freelance world, with an acerbic tongue and no-nonsense style. He is currently based permanently at The Canary


SHARMINI PERIES: It's the Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to from Baltimore. The Crown Prosecution Services of England and Wales is due to announce the results of a criminal investigation into expense violations allegedly committed by members by the conservative party of Theresa May. Just less than one month from the snap general election called for by the Prime Minister. The ruling conservative party could find a number of its MPs charged with violating election spending restrictions. Originally this story broke in the independent news outlet, The Canary. With assistance of multiple whistle blowers. Joining us today to discuss the nature of the election spending scandal is Steve Topple. Steve is an independent journalist and political and social commentator. Steve very good to have you with us.

STEVEN TOPPLE: Thank you Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: Steve, let's begin with you describing what exactly the CPS's criminal investigation is looking into. And the role that the Canary had in triggering these investigations.

STEVEN TOPPLE: Okay so in layman's terms, this goes back to the allegations again of local spending being declared as national spending. Specifically with the story, a company called Return Marketing was doing work for the conservatives. It was specifically targeting possible conservative voters and marginal constituencies. And was ringing them up and doing what is known as " Push Polling". Which is where a marketeer asks leading questions of someone to try to get the answers that would lead them to maybe consider voting conservative. The issue here is Return Marketing set up a specific office, outlet if you like, to target particular constituencies for local campaigns. But again, this money was declared national spending. And furthermore to the story as well, the conservatives declared that they were using Return Marketing between March and May of 2015. When in fact, the whistle blowers that came to the Canary said that they were actually working with Returning Marketing from November 2014.

So, it's a kind of two pronged, if you like story. First of all, that they were declaring local with Return Marketing as national spending. And also that they failed to declare the true extent of how much work Return Marketing had done for the party.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. And there is also a separate story that was more widely reported in the press regarding the so called conservative battle bus. What is it and how does it fit into this entire story?

STEVEN TOPPLE: Okay so the conservative battle bus, much like you have in the US with your presidential candidates was a bus emblazoned with the conservative party logo and lots of Union Jack flags smothered across it. And it's prime purpose was to ferry activists and conservative party candidates across the country to constituencies where the party team needed to increase it's campaigning. Again, these marginal constituencies. So this battle bus was ferrying supporters to campaign centers across the UK. But again, this is the Crux of the whole story so ending in conservative election fraud. It was declared as national spending not local spending. Which it should've been the latter not the former allegedly.

SHARMINI PERIES: Okay, explain that a bit further. What is local spending and what is national spending when it comes to the elections and why are there stipulations as to how you can use that money?

STEVEN TOPPLE: Sure, okay. In regards to local spending, in the 2015 German election the electoral commission set a level of just under 15,000 pounds as the amount each MP candidate could spend on local campaigning in the constituency. This would be anything from adverts in newspapers to hotel bills to supporters and press and marketing people to come and stay in the constituency. It would also be leafleting.

The differences between that and national spending. National spending includes such items as the political party board casts that we have on Television, national campaigning on national issues not local issues and appearances for example by Theresa May, the Prime Minister. Her appearances and her transport and hotel cost would be included in national spending. It is clearly defined by the electoral commission, what is local spending and what is national spending. And this is where the crux of this story comes from if you like. That things were declared nationally which were apparently blatantly local spending. And the conservatives failed to declare. The figures are varying if you like. It's anything up to hundreds of thousands of pounds. Which is crucial. And it could result in possible fines and possible prosecutions of the MPs and the party employees that were involved.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. And how many conservative party MPs are involved in these irregularities?

STEVEN TOPPLE: Okay, so we have no definitive lists as such. There have investigations of rumors by numerous media outlets. Currently, we do know that the crown prosecutions services are investigation allegations against thirty people involved with conservative party, However there is no current breakdown of whether these people are MPs or whether they are campaigners or employees of the Tories. We know there are some MPs involved. Rumors say it is anything up to 28 MPs. And if I could just say at this point, this is kind of the crux of the story for many people. That if it includes up to 28 MPs, that is more than the conservative majority that they gained at the last general election. So working on the theory that if they are found guilty and if they are either fined or possibly imprisoned then the last election could well be declared null and void. Because these people were elected using money they theoretically shouldn't have.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right and is this par for the course in terms of election spending? In other words, is the labor party also involved and implicated in violating electoral expense rules of this sort?

STEVEN TOPPLE: Okay, I mean you know, politics is dirty in the US. It's fairly stained over here if you like. Yes, labor has been fined under electoral spending rules themselves as well. They were fined twenty thousand pounds last year as well for failing to declare some national spending. Eight thousand pounds on what is a quite infamous campaign by the labor party in the UK. It was something called the Ed Stone, where the then leader, Ed Miliband, put his five pledges that he made to the electorate carved into this massive piece of work and paraded it in front of the media. That was not declared at all in the spending. and there was also irregularities in other areas of national spending.

The difference is here that labor was charged and fined for around eighteen thousand pounds worth of national spending that was undeclared. Where as the implications for the conservative party is again, it's back to this local campaign and local spending which was declared nationally. So while there was differences. Labor has been hot water as well.

The other main part in the UK, the liberal democrats were also fined around twenty thousand pounds for not properly declaring their expenses. So there all assets. It's just the conservatives appear to be more ratted than the other parties.

SHARMINI PERIES: So this throws not only Theresa May, but the victory of the former conservative MPs election in 2015 and all of that. Question the legitimacy of the entire conservative party and its reign.

STEVEN TOPPLE: It did. That's the bottom line. Many people are saying if the conservatives are found guilty of this and they could be sent to prison the people involved for anything up to a year. Then that surely must throw into question the legitimacy of the election. And that's what I previously said, the majority of the conservatives is sixteen MPs. It's so small that if these MPs are found to be guilty, it could well overturn the majority if the electoral commission decides that the election has to be re run. And that is the crucial point here. There is no guarantees however that whatever the outcome of the prosection that the electoral commission will say that well now there has to be a re run of these elections. No one is guaranteeing that as yet. We are all still waiting to hear. It's a very much up in the air story if you like.

SHARMINI PERIES: And will this have impact on the upcoming snap election? I mean, are these MPs that are being investigated still sitting to run in this coming election? And how will it be, all this scandalous election fraud allegations being received by the public? And will it have an impact on this election which seems to be heavily weighed in favor of the current government of Theresa May.

STEVEN TOPPLE: Okay, I'll deal with that in two points. Firstly, Yes it could well have implications. Because we found out just yesterday that the Crown Prosecution will start releasing their findings in regards to their investigations this week. Which we are now four weeks away from the general election in the UK. So if the Crown Prosecution starts announcing that they are going to be formally investigating and possibly charging people with potential fraud. Then this will have implications on the general election. But again it is up to the electoral commission to see what they will do.

With regards to the second point about voters, that is a different kettle of fish. I mean, opinion polls in the UK still put the conservative party, the last one I saw was the Tories were on 48%, with labor honorably 29%. The Tories still have a clear lead in this election if you believe opinion polls. Some people do, some people don't. Then that's fairly confident if you like that the conservatives will win this election. However, We will wait and see. There is a lot of determining factors here. And everything is still to play for. However, the public so far, the majority of the public, do not seem to be too concerned about this. But I think maybe when the Crown Prosecution Services release their findings. Then the media will pick up on it a bit more. And the public may become more interested. Again, we will have to wait and see.

SHARMINI PERIES: Steve Topple, I Thank you so much for joining us today. And we hope you can join us as this situation unfolds in the UK elections.

STEVEN TOPPLE: Thank you for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.


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