This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

There was a lot going on last week, so the written ministerial statement on Election Finance Regulation went largely under the radar.

But it’s important because the changes are substantial.

It uprates “in line with inflation” how much candidates and political parties are allowed to spend at UK parliamentary elections.

Until the change, a person could only(!) donate £7,500 to a party without their identity having to be revealed.

The uprating now takes that to £11,180.

That may not seem like much, but as Peter Geoghegan, the author of Democracy For Sale, points out in his regular newsletter, just £12,000 bought Richard Desmond a seat next to the then housing minister Robert Jenrick at a Tory fundraising dinner in 2020.

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You’ll maybe remember that the Tory frontbencher overruled the government’s own planning inspector to approve the development, which had it ultimately gone ahead, would have saved the UK's 107th richest person around £40m.

The Electoral Reform Society is bothered by the change.

They say they “are concerned about any move that could see more money flowing anonymously into our politics.”

They also point out that the changes do nothing to fix the loopholes that already exist in the system, such as unincorporated associations that can donate under £25,000 a year without declaring the source.

“The concern here is that we end up with a politics for sale to the highest bidder, where the greatest influence is not wielded by ordinary voters but those with the deepest pockets,” Jessica Garland, Director of Policy and Research at the ERS said. 

It’s not just the money coming in, that the reform – passed, by the way, without any scrutiny or debate – changes.

The national election spending cap has jumped from £19.5m to £35m.

That’s equivalent to an increase from a £30,000 cap per seat to £54,000.

There are arguably, some good reasons to change, as Jacob Young, the newest minister at the Department for Levelling Up, pointed out in his written statement.

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The rules were brought in in 2000 and haven’t been updated since 2009.

“The lack of change in absolute terms impacts campaigning ability given the increased costs of printing, postage and communication, which is vital for parties and candidates to engage with voters,” Mr Young said. “For example, a second class stamp cost 19p in 2000; it is 75p today.”

The problem with that argument is that parties don’t really use stamps in 2023 in the way that they did in 2000.

The Herald: Jacob Young, minister at the Department for Levelling Up, argued that the additional election financing was necessary for rising material costsJacob Young, minister at the Department for Levelling Up, argued that the additional election financing was necessary for rising material costs (Image: Newsquest)
Interesting analysis from Who Targets Me, a group which campaigns for more transparency around political ads, thinks at least some of the £15m of new cash that Labour and the Tories can spend, will be spent digitally.

Anyone who’s been around an election campaign will know there’s a fair bit of print kicking about.

But getting it to voters can be a schlep. If you don’t have the volunteers, you might even as the SNP did at the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, need to use some of your cash to pay for leafleters.

Digital ads, on the other hand, are cheap, require not a huge amount of work, and can reach millions of voters.

“You can use them to hit target seats and voters with messages you think they'll want to hear, and you can do it time and again. Ads never get tired or need pizza.” Who Targets Me wrote last week. “They don't care if it's raining. They aren’t reliant on fancy, untested technology. They don't even care if you've seen them before, they'll just keep on coming.”

According to their research, since 2015, the main parties have spent around £13m on Facebook, Google, Snapchat and Twitter ads.

They predict that the extra headroom could see one of the big parties spend more than £10m on digital ads at the next election.

That’ll pay for roughly five million voters, in around 100 seats, seeing approximately two billion political ads.

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As Who Targets Me points out, we in the media haven’t really taken this seriously.

“We find this frustrating, because the story of how campaigns think they’ll win is written in their ads, which show where they think they can win, who they’ll need to persuade to do so, and how much effort they’ll have to put in to do it.

“Show us a list of postcodes and the amount a party is spending in them, and we’ll tell you exactly which seats they think they can win.”

Last week Rishi Sunak spent around £35,000 on a single set of Facebook ads targeting the over 55s, boasting that he had halved inflation. 

The next general election is going to be next year, possibly as soon as May, possibly even sooner. 

The campaign's already started.