Euan McColm: Laws governing EU referendum proved meaningless

Campaigners at Millbank Tower react to Sunderland's result on the night of the EU referendum in June 2016. Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty
Campaigners at Millbank Tower react to Sunderland's result on the night of the EU referendum in June 2016. Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty
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Without a criminal sanction or the threat of a re-run, Vote Leave can cock a snook at the Electoral Commission, says Euan McColm

Imagine you’re unhappy with your television. The screen’s too small, the sound’s terrible and, frankly, nobody much enjoyed watching that last match round at your place.

There’s only one thing for it: you’re going to have to shell out a couple of grand on a new one.

Unfortunately, you’ve already spent the last of your savings on lottery tickets and artisan gin so the need for a TV simply cannot be met with the 
resources you have available. So what do you do?

You could do the right thing and save a bit, maybe buy a new flat-screen next year, or you could, I suppose, stroll confidently into John Lewis, unhook a fancy Sony from the wall and march out with it under your arm.

And, if a security guard stopped you by the front door, you could try explaining that it was the will of the people that you had a new TV.

You wouldn’t do that, though, would you? There’s a law against you stealing things, even when you really, really want them. If you get caught in the act, you don’t get to keep your ill-gotten gains, you get to visit your local police station and you get to have a criminal record that might well ruin your life.

Steal a referendum result, on the other hand, and – even if you get caught – you get to keep your winnings.

READ MORE: Official Brexit campaign ‘broke electoral law’

Last week, the Vote Leave campaign, which celebrated victory in the 2016 EU referendum, leaked news that the Electoral Commission was set to find it breached electoral law during the Brexit referendum.

In what appeared to be an effort to take back control of this particular story, this particular group of Brexiteers let it be known that the commission had accused them of breaking their official spending limit of £7 million by passing donations to another campaign group – BeLeave – with which it was allegedly co-ordinating operations.

If, indeed, Vote Leave did break electoral law during the campaign, one might be forgiven for expecting that there would be some pretty serious consequences.

After all, ignoring the law in order to win a referendum that will change the course of British history might be considered a more serious matter than half-inching a telly.

If the law on spending limits – put in place (and here’s a laugh) to stop the wealthy simply buying victories – really meant anything, there would be police involvement. As it is, this piece of civil, rather than criminal, law is utterly worthless.

The toughest sanction available to the electoral commission is the imposition of a fine of up to £20,000. To a millionaire campaigner willing to ignore the law, that might seem like very good value indeed.

The spin from pro-Brexit politicians, campaigners, and commentators is that none of this had any impact on the result of the referendum; a majority would have voted Leave, regardless of the amount any of the participants had spent. If this is so, one wonders why they felt the need to spend anything on the campaign at all.

Remainers hoping that the Electoral Commission’s findings might have some impact on the result are to be disappointed.

It’s no wonder Vote Leave was so relaxed about revealing some of the detail of its own alleged misdeeds.

But this scandal – and it is a bloody scandal, regardless of how it might be dismissed by the braying Brexiteers of Little England – should have consequences for future elections and referendums. It is time for spending on campaigns to be a matter of criminal rather than civil law.

I fear, however, that we will see little appetite for this necessary change from the main political parties.

It is an open secret that participants in elections regularly ignore the rules and regulations that are supposed to ensure financial fair play. As one campaigner put it to me last week: “We all do it and nobody wants to make an issue of it. If we start throwing accusations at our opponents, they’ll start throwing accusations at us. Everyone’s hands are dirty.”

This cosy, all-in-the-sewer-together understanding makes a mockery of already toothless legislation surrounding spending limits.

An especially bleak irony of the electoral commission’s findings, as leaked by Vote Leave, is that the Brexit campaign was driven by a populist message that departure from the EU would empower those who felt left behind by “political elites” or “the establishment” when the reality, it appears, is that the only people truly empowered by it are a financial elite whose contempt for the law (for what it is currently worth, which is nothing) is out there in the open, now, for all to see.

When those who value “Britishness” talk about what it actually means, they will tell you that they pride themselves on our collective sense of fair play.

If those Brexiteers who made so much about British values during the 2016 campaign truly meant what they say, they would be clamouring for a re-run of the referendum. A result obtained by murky means, with the law ignored, is surely fundamentally un-British, isn’t it?

Anyone who dares to question the validity of a victory secured by a campaign that broke electoral law should expect to be dismissed as an out-of-touch “Remoaner”.

The rag-bag of libertarians, right-wing obsessives, and downright racists who are currently pushing for Brexit at any cost will have their way.

I can’t see any good reason that anyone – regardless of their political position – would oppose turning the regulation of campaign funding from a civil to a criminal matter. After all, don’t we all want to ensure the high standards politicians talk about to be a reality rather than just another bit of meaningless spin?

The EU referendum result will have consequences for generations to come. Those who secured that victory may consider themselves very fortunate indeed that the law governing the way the referendum was conducted is meaningless.