Reining the Political ‘Wild West’ – Campaign Rules for the 21st century

The Electoral Reform Society (for whom I worked between 1998 and 2006) have co-ordinated a significant study published today which looks at electoral finance in the UK and in particular what they refer to as the wild west of campaigning – online.

The publication is a series of essays looking at different aspects of the field and includes contributions from the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Electoral Commission.

ERS also has a list of recommendations for changes in the law. They are: 

  1. In the short term, extending the imprint requirement to online campaign materials and improving how campaigners report funding and spending are two of the most readily achievable solutions. The government seems to recognise this and its consultation on imprints was a welcome and important  rst step in this regard.
  2. The creation of a single online database of political adverts, which would be publicly available and easily searchable, would similarly increase transparency and allow voters to identify who has produced a piece of content.
  3. Those charged with enforcing the rules should have suffcient enforcement powers and resources. That must involve strengthening the fines or sanctions so they can act as a meaningful deterrent against wrongdoing. The ICO’s powers were increased considerably in the past year, showing what can be achieved if there is political will.
  4. Parties and the government must properly engage in efforts to establish a statutory code of practice for political parties and campaigners without delay.
  5. More broadly, the ERS is calling for a comprehensive review and overhaul of our electoral law, which needs to be updated and future-proofed for the digital age. The fundamental principle must be to ensure that the public have faith in the democratic process. Alongside efforts to improve the quality of public debate itself, this could transform the murky world of online campaigning into a force for good.

ERS is right to point out that this is an area in which the UK has woeful regulation. UK electoral laws were mostly written in the year 2000 – before widespread use of the internet and before social media such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram were even invented.

Stephen Doughty, Labour MP for Aberavon and one of the contributors, has set out some of the practical changes he believes are necessary:

  1. We should look at which powers sit best with the Electoral Commission – which works best as a regulator and policy body – and which should sit with the police. There should also be unlimited fines for electoral offences, rather than a maximum of £20,000, which is an insufficient deterrent.
  2. All political campaigns should be made to report spending online. We have a precedent for this with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which tracks MPs’ spending. This would make it easier for campaigns to track their spending and bring more transparency into elections.
  3. Financial transfers from designated campaign groups during referendums must be banned. Current rules allow the designated campaign to give up to £700,000 to groups as long as they do not coordinate their work, but it is surely unreasonable to think gifts of this size are entirely without expectation, particularly as they create the potential to evade spending limits.
  4. We should regulate paid political digital advertising in the election period with a digital bill of rights for democracy.

Mr Kinnock also announces that he has set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency.

Overall this is a significant contribution to the debate. Where this paper is weakest is in setting out a coherent statement of principles for regulation. We cannot just combat the problems that exist at the moment. Given how rarely electoral laws are updated, the action that is taken needs to ensure that the law is future-proofed for further developments in digital campaigning and engagement. ERS identify this in their fifth recommendation, but don’t go on to suggest how this can be done.

You can read the whole ERS paper here.