Reading List – 8th October 2020

Russia and Europe: Stuck on Autopilot

This is a long read which looks at Russia’s relationships with three key European players – Germany, France and the UK. Andrew Weiss of Carnegie argues that at a time when Russia could be exploiting EU and NATO weaknesses to subtly further its foreign policy ambitions, it is acting too bluntly. 

Germany has traditionally separated business ties from politics, but there are strong calls for the Nord-Stream 2 project to be cancelled or put on hold. Whilst these are being resisted by Chancellor Merkel and her likely successors, there is clearly a block to any new ventures.

President Macron has continued the French tradition of seeking closer ties with Russia, partly as a demonstration of an alternative view of Europe that does not rely on the USA. Russia has proved less responsive however and continues to undertake projects in Francophone Africa which the Elysee Palace views as treading on its toes. If Russia can have a sphere of influence then whay cannot France?

As for the UK, Russian money is deeply embedded here and the ISC report showed just how close the Conservative party and Kremlin have become. But activities such as the Skripal poisoning led to the UK co-ordinating a global response which Russia did not predict.

Europe’s Longest-Running Conflict Can’t Be Ignored

Another piece about the Armenia/Azerbaijan conflict, this time from Thomas de Waal of Carnegie. Her argues that the conflict cannot be ignored and can only be resolved with Russian assistance. 

The Foreign Secretary’s Evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee: 10 Things We Learned

Sophia Gaston, the director of the British Foreign Policy Group, looks at Dominic Raab’s evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee for clues as to the outcome of the Government’s strategic foreign policy review.

There appears to be a very nuanced stance on China with a desire to keep them in the room and talking whilst also making sure they cannot dominate multilateral institutions while America is focussed elsewhere. There is even talk of a boycott of the forthcoming Beijing Winter Olympics.

However it seems the UK will continue to press the idea of being a champion of democracy and human rights whilst maintianing strong ties to Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes.

As far as Russia is concerned, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of new policy around the corner. Perhaps sensing that strong action to counter corrupt money housed in London would simply highlight the claims made in the ISC report, Raab downplayed the issue, although he did raise the possibility of Magnitsky type action in the future.

The Challenge of Observing American Democracy

This is a great read for those of us interested or involved in the election observation business.

Electoral Reform Society reveals the scale of secretive online campaigning in the UK

The Electoral Reform Society has published a report looking at the amount of dark campaigning that took place during the UK’s general election of 2019. They have also come up with a number of proposals for reform.

In the report, Dr Katharine Dommett and Dr Sam Power have looked at five aspects of online campaigning:

  • Campaigning by the parties themselves
  • Campaigning by third party groups (outriders)
  • Online Targeting
  • Data Use
  • Misinformation

Some of these might seem pretty familiar by now. Parties have every right to use Facebook and other platforms and these offer exceptional ability to micro-target. The problem is that there is a fine line between legitimate campaigning and breaking the rules. And as the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed, there are groups who are prepared to go well beyond the law in order to help their side win.

Perhaps the least known aspect covered by this report is the section on ‘outriders’. These are groups that set up just before an election, raise and spend money during it, and then disappear. It often takes many months to show that perhaps these groups were not as independent as they might seem.

The report looks at one group called ‘3rd Party Limited’. This group appears to have taken out adverts which had the effect of boosting the chances of Dominic Raab being re-elected in the Esher and Walton constituency. The ERS report suggests that it placed adverts which first aimed to split the opposition vote between Labour and Greens and then promoted votes for Raab himself, spending £8,837 on Facebook adverts between 21st November and 13th December 2019. To put it into context, that is just over half the amount that Mr Raab was allowed to spend in total on his election campaign.

The difference between non-party groups, which mostly operate on a national basis, and outriders which aim to get around spending limits on local campaigns, might be clear in theory, but in legal terms is anything but. To be clear, there is no suggestion that there was co-ordination between Mr Raab and ‘3rd Party limited’ or any wrongdoing. However, the law as it stands does allow these outriders to make a mockery of local spending limits.

The ERS report makes ten recommendations for the future which, in my opinion, are strong and the very least that can be done to update the UK’s election law. They go far beyond the limited (but welcome) proposal by the government to add imprint requirements to online adverts.

  1. Require campaigners to provide the Electoral Commission with more detailed, meaningful and accessible invoices of what they have spent, boosting scrutiny and transparency over online vs offline spend. 
  2. Strengthen the powers of the Electoral Commission to investigate malpractice and create a stronger deterrent against wrongdoing by increasing the maximum fine it can levy. 
  3. Implement shorter reporting deadlines so that financial information from campaigns on their donations and spending is available to voters and the Commission more quickly after a campaign, or indeed, in ‘real time’. Currently, voters have to wait far too long to see the state of the campaign.  
  4. Regulate all donations by reducing ‘permissibility check’ requirements from £500 to 1p for all non-cash donations, and £500 to £20 for cash donations. The current rules are riddled with loopholes and haven’t kept up with the digital age, raising the risks of foreign or unscrupulous interference.  
  5. Create a publicly accessible, clear and consistent archive of paid-for political advertising. This archive should include details of each advert’s source (name and address), who sponsored (paid) for it, and (for some) the country of origin.  
  6. New controls created by social media companies to check that people or organisations who want to pay to place political adverts about elections and referendums in the UK are actually based in the UK or registered to vote here.  
  7. New legislation clarifying that campaigning by non-UK actors is not allowed. Campaigners should not be able to accept money from companies that have not made enough money in the UK to fund the amount of their donation or loan. 
  8. Legislate for a statutory code of practice for the use of personal information in political campaigns, to clarify the rules and ensure voters know their rights. 
  9. A public awareness and digital literacy campaign which will better allow citizens to identify misinformation. 
  10. 10.Rationalise Britain’s sprawling, Victorian-era electoral law under one consistent legislative framework.