Labour's tougher line on bonuses

Party steps up the rhetoric but will it win back voters?

From the Labour conference

Alistair Darling's speech this afternoon was another example of the harsher line Labour ministers have taken on bank bonuses at the conference.

He promised that the new "clawback" system planned by the government would end the "reckless culture that puts short-term profits over long-term success". He also said: "It will mean an end to automatic bank bonuses year after year. It will mean an end to immediate payouts for top management."

But will it help lift Labour's dismal poll ratings? Today's ComRes poll for the Independent put the party level with the Lib Dems on 23 per cent, with the Tories on 38 per cent. Even allowing for the Lib Dems' standard post-conference bounce this is a remarkably low level of support.

Labour's best hope probably does lie in a populist stance on bonuses and extravagant salaries, with more measures such as the popular 50p income-tax rate. The test will be whether the party offers sufficiently distinct policies from the Tories.

I'd expect David Cameron and George Osborne to promise similarly tough action on bonuses in Manchester next week. The election success of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, who won by tacking to the left on bonuses and pay, is likely to concentrate Conservative minds.

I'm off to hear Ed Miliband in conversation with Steve Richards this afternoon, but it's his brother who's been garnering favourable headlines today.

The ComRes poll I mentioned earlier found that Labour would perform better at the next election under David Miliband than any other alternative leader, with the exception of Jack Straw. Under either of the two, Labour would be the largest party in a hung parliament, opening the way for a coalition with the Lib Dems.

Miliband is certainly enjoying a better conference than last year. His address at last night's New Statesman party was confident, amusing and self-deprecating. He made light of the 2008 "banana incident" by quipping about the multiple photo opportunities this year's crop of fresh fruit stalls provides.

But those who suggest Miliband represents Labour's future forget that the trade unions continue to hold a third of the votes in Labour's electoral college. Many trade unionists regard the Foreign Secretary as little better than a Tory.

There's been less discussion of Straw's impressive performance in the poll, although in the past he's been spoken of as a possible caretaker leader. If Labour's defeat next year is as severe as some predict, its younger figures may wish to keep their powder dry until the party has regained ground.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why haven't we heard more about the allegations of Tory election fraud?

Police and prosecutors have joined a probe into election fraud allegations that could erase the Tory majority.

The facts

The Conservative Party is facing accusations of breaking election spending rules during its 2015 campaign. Following a Channel 4 investigation, it has admitted to failing to declare more than £38,000 of expenses, money it says was spent on accommodation for Tory activists.

It’s up to the Electoral Commission, which met this week with prosecutors and police forces, to decide whether or not to launch criminal investigations into this spending.

Allegations that the money benefited campaigns in individual seats have put the Tories in hot water – they may have illegally exceeded the constituency-specific spending limit. Making a false spending declaration in an election carries a punishment of up to a year in prison and/or an unlimited fine, and anyone found guilty is also barred from running in a general election or holding any elected office for three years.

But the party claims that, as the money was spent on “BattleBus” activists who were driving around the country, it counts as national spending from HQ, rather than being part of individual candidates’ spending.

The Electoral Commission, Crown Prosecution Service and representatives of 15 police forces met this week to discuss the claims. This has resulted in extra time being allowed (an extension on the 12 months allowed under the Representation of the People Act) for relevant police forces to decide what action to take.

Up to 29 Conservative candidates are thought to have benefitted from “BattleBus” campaigning, many of whom were fighting marginal seats.

As Channel 4’s Michael Crick reported yesterday:

“It will be interesting to see if they actually start naming constituencies where they think offences may have occurred. That would then put elected MPs, Conservative MPs, in the frame.

“And indeed, if they were to look at all the constituencies that we’ve been making allegations about over the last few months, it could actually endanger the government’s majority in the House of Commons.”

The conspiracy claims

So why haven’t we heard about this? It undermines the credibility of the entire Tory general election campaign. The claims could even constitute a scandal that would trigger by-elections across the country and potentially erase the Tory majority. The Tories have a working majority of 18, so if they lost in 18 by-elections (were at least 18 MPs to be found guilty), then they would lose their majority.

Some, particularly online leftwing voices, have accused the media of conspiring not to cover this story. Our rightwing press and the cowardly BBC, they argue, are ignoring a story that could potentially call the Conservative general election victory into question.

Anger about this story being low on the political agenda is understandable. It hasn’t been prominent, considering it could result in prosecutions (indeed, the Devon and Cornwall police force is reportedly already investigating, following its meeting with the Electoral Commission). And if, say, The Sun were a left-leaning paper, it probably would have framed it in a dramatic way that would have grabbed readers’ attention.

But there isn’t a media conspiracy of silence. BBC News has been covering developments since the beginning of the year, including similar claims about 2014 by-elections, and Grant Shapps MP (Conservative chairman during the election) was hauled onto the BBC Daily Politics sofa to respond to the allegations. And the BBC’s Today programme put the allegations to Communities & Local Government Secretary Greg Clark this morning. Channel 4 News has been investigating the story, and breaking developments, from the start. The Mirror has done a big investigation into each of the MPs’ campaigns that have been accused. And all of the main papers have published news reports on the story.

The reason it may seem like silence, or lack of due prominence, is because this is an ongoing investigation. So far there have been no arrests, and the allegations remain just that: allegations. Care is required by media organisations not to falsely accuse anyone of criminal activity. And, pushed by journalists, the Conservatives have given their side of the story, so we’re not going to get a great deal more from them. Now it’s up to police forces to decide to take action.

So far, the only things to report on have been what would and would not count as a breach of electoral law (rather a dry subject), and whether or not the Electoral Commission would achieve an extension on the time allowed by law for investigating (also somewhat technical). And, however dull, these things have been reported. They may not have been shared a huge amount online, or bounced to the top of “most-read” boxes – but this is because readers aren’t usually that interested in the ins and outs of the Representation of the People Act, no matter how much those who want this government toppled wish they were.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.