Date updated: Tuesday 30th January 2024

Today, 30 January 2024, is the latest possible date for the start of the UK Parliamentary General Election regulated period for non-party campaigners. While speculation has been rife about when the General Election will be held, most commentators think the likeliest time will be towards the end of this Autumn. The regulated period lasts for 365 days, leading up to and including polling day. As the last date the election can be held is 28 January 2025, we now know that we are in a regulated period, which may have begun earlier depending on when the election is held. The regulated period is the time when spending limits apply to campaign spending.

This article looks at recent changes to the law that will affect campaigners in the run-up to the election, in particular spending limits for non-party campaigners. It will also consider what it means for campaigners.

Last month, significant changes were made to political funding rules and these apply from 1 January 2024. The changes were made by Statutory Instrument, which means there was not a full debate or vote. Most notably, the spending caps for political parties have increased by 80%, and the threshold for donations to political parties that must be declared has increased from £7,500 to £11,800. The revised figures can be found here.

Background - regulation of non-party campaigners

‘Non-party campaigners’ are organisations that campaign at elections but do not stand as political parties or candidates. Charities that want to get their message heard and are entitled to use charity resources to advocate for social or political change can be non-party campaigners.  Stone King has recently produced a Q&A for charities registered in England and Wales to outline the applicable charity and election law to avoid difficulties and concentrate on running an effective campaign.

In many cases, spending by non-party campaigners on campaigns and activities will not be regulated. However, where there is significant campaign spending, the rules require that campaigners account for their funding. The Electoral Commission has produced a Statutory Code of Practice for non-party campaigners, which was laid in Parliament in September 2023 and came into force on 1 December 2023. Suppose a non-party campaigner intends to spend more than £10,000 across the UK on public, regulated campaign activities which are reasonably regarded as planning to promote or procure electoral success at an election for one or more particular parties or for parties or candidates that advocate for specific policies within a regulated period (i.e., one year before the election date, applied retrospectively) the campaigner would need to notify and register with the Electoral Commission.

It should be noted that charities are not permitted to aim to procure success for particular candidates or parties; they can only promote specific policies or legislative aims where this is linked to their charitable purposes, but these policies may coincide with those of a party or candidates.

What are the thresholds?

The new spending threshold for UK-wide regulated activity for registered non-party campaigners who have committed to spending more than £20,000 in England is £700,000. This threshold applies to all regulated campaign activity, including that of charities that register as non-party campaigners. It is almost double the previous spending limit of £390,000. 

The campaigning limits for each region are as follows:

  • England: £586,548

  • Northern Ireland: £33,443

  • Scotland: £81,571

  • Wales: £54,566

There have also been changes to targeted spending limits for registered non-party campaigners who undertake regulated activity that can be considered ‘targeting expenditure’ (namely, spending seeking to promote the electoral success of one candidate or party – this does not include charities, who are prohibited from targeted party political activity of this sort).

The limits for each region are as follows:

  • England: £58,654

  • Scotland: £6,157

  • Wales: £3,456

  • Northern Ireland: £1,944

The most significant area of change for many non-party campaigners will be the changes in constituency spending limits; the previous spending limit was £9,750 for each of the 650 constituencies, which has now almost doubled to £17,533 per constituency. It is an offence to spend over the limit, and the limit will apply before a notification to register as a non-party campaigner and while an organisation is registered as a non-party campaigner. Where expenditure is not specific to a particular constituency, non-party campaigners will need to follow the rules on attribution. 

Public trust and confidence

Many are concerned that the public is distrustful of campaign funding, and rules purporting to regulate it. The Electoral Commission, in a statement to Sky News on 23 November 2023, expressed concerns about the increased political spending limits and said that the Commission’s research shows a long-term decline in public confidence in the political finance system. The Commission added that they had not seen evidence to support the changes and they were concerned that the proposal risks damaging the transparency of political donations, giving significantly more scope for higher spending parties to campaign. Political spending, including by non-party campaigners, will likely be under significant scrutiny, and risk assessments along with adequate reporting will be of the utmost importance for all non-party campaigners.

Joint campaigning 

Even if an organisation does not intend to register with the Electoral Commission (perhaps because, on its own, it will sit comfortably below registration thresholds), non-party campaigners must consider whether they will be campaigning with other organisations. This is known as ‘joint campaigning’ – which is also regulated and may require registration. 

It is important to agree and monitor campaign expenses when working with other campaigners because this can easily amount to a joint campaign. This can occur when an organisation collaborates on campaigns with others, according to a ‘common plan’, in which they organise how they carry out regulated activities for a common purpose. In that situation, their spending is considered together and it is possible to be in a common plan even if your spending is nil. 

The new spending limits will be of particular significance for non-party campaigners thinking of registering. Stone King’s Charity Team can provide support and advice for campaigners seeking to register as well as campaigners with specific questions about how to avoid carrying out regulated campaign activity. 

For more information, read our Q&A on charity and election law for campaigning charities.

With thanks to Ruby Lake, Solicitor, and Tom Murdoch, Partner, for preparing this article.