If I said to you that you needed to pay £5000 before you could stand for election would you be shocked? Would you feel like democracy only works if you are able to pay? Would you be surprised to know that this is the case in the UK now?
In May, those of us in South Yorkshire will get to elect our first ever ‘Metro-Mayor’. This is a mayor who, because the constituent councils can’t agree, will have little or no power yet could be paid in excess of £70,000 a year plus, I would imagine, a generous ‘expenses account’ and whose election will cost the region between £1m and £2m. To even get your name on the ballot paper for this particular non-job you (or if you are lucky, your political party) will have to stump up £5000. Just to put that in perspective – that’s a quarter of the average annual salary in Yorkshire (that’s before tax and yes I know a lot of people earn a lot less than that!).
How is it that in a ‘thriving democracy’ such a massive barrier is put in front of anyone who wants to put their name forward for consideration by the electorate?
Election deposits are not the most riveting of subjects even to political anoraks, however they are one significant way that the major parties can gerrymander elections and strangle independent and minor party voices. The UK is one of only 2 European countries that expects a candidate to pay a deposit ahead of an election (the other being the Republic of Ireland) and one of only a handful of nations globally who do this. (Not even the USA requires a deposit to be paid)
If you wish to stand for election as an MP, MEP, Police and Crime Commissioner, Mayor, member of the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish assemblies, you have to pay a deposit to get your name on the ballot paper. For election to the House of Commons this means paying £500 along with your registration papers. You will get the £500 back if you manage to get at least 5% of the vote in the election.
Election deposits were brought in as part of the 1918 representation of the peoples act to dissuade “frivolous candidates”. At that time the fee was set at £150 – quite a substantial amount of money at that time plus you had to get 12.5% of the vote to get your money back. In 1985 the fee was set at £500 but the threshold was reduced to 5%.
Even the Electoral Commission, the government Quango that oversees elections in the UK, says that the deposit system should be abandoned because it is so unfair. Of course the Conservative government, almost certainly with the assent of the Labour opposition, disagree. The two large parties with the name recognition know that they can almost certainly guarantee 5% support in most, if not all, constituencies and so they get their deposits back. Also, candidates for the major parties have their deposits paid for them unlike independent minded citizens. Who does the deposit system serve best – a major party candidate who isn’t risking any of their own hard earned cash or the civic minded independent candidate who knows full well their ‘voice’ could hit them hard in their own pocket to the tune of £500 or £5000?
In a first past the post electoral system, assuming an average electorate of 75,000 and a turnout of about 70% it would require a candidate to receive 2625 votes to get their deposit returned. With our current electoral system, this is a massive barrier. It is estimated that in the 2015 general election the treasury took in £750,000 in lost deposits. I’m sure they won’t complain about barriers to real democracy.
How arrogant are those that say the deposit system deters ‘frivolous candidates’! Who gets to decide who is or isn’t a ‘frivolous’ candidate – the electorate or a group of politicians whose best interests is served by restricting the number of people who can try and take their job off them? It’s a racket pure and simple!