20 years since the Electoral Commission was founded, our watchdog needs more clout

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 25th November 2020

Monday 30th November marks the 20th Anniversary of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act.

In 2000, just 30% of people had internet access at home. Facebook was years from conception. Today, campaigners spend millions each election on (largely unregulated) digital campaigning, reaching almost every household.

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act was given Royal Assent 20 years ago on Monday 30th November. It set up clear rules on donations, spending and campaigning, marking the most significant modernisation of the system since the Victorian era. However, it was written before online campaigning became a significant part of UK elections.

In contrast to printed material, online political ads do not currently require ‘imprints’ showing who is behind them. Despite repeated Government pledges to close the loophole, ministers have not set a timeline for reform.

Without action soon, voters will continue to be left in the dark over who is behind online ads – particularly in the run up to a major round of elections next May.

The call to bolster the Electoral Commission comes at a time when the idea of a dedicated independent watchdog has come under attack.

However, MPs from all parties have called for the elections watchdog to be strengthened along the lines of the Information Commissioner’s Office. Currently the Electoral Commission’s fines and investigation powers are ‘dangerously limited’.

According to recent analysis of Facebook data for the ERS, 88 UK organisations were listed as non-party campaign groups during the 2019 election. These groups placed 13,197 adverts at an estimated cost of £2.7m. Millions more were spent on Google and other online platforms. Political party spending on online platforms overall is likely to have increased by over 50 percent in 2019 compared to 2017, according to research for the ERS.

Looking back to when the Electoral Commission was established, Britain was still reeling from years of party funding scandals in the 1990s. There were no limits on party spending so the system was effectively a race to rake in the most cash – secretly and from any sources possible. There can be no going back to those dark days.

Today the legislation needs a refresh for the age of online campaigning. Loopholes have emerged which need closing urgently. The fines for campaign wrongdoing are seen as the ‘cost of doing business’, and our elections watchdog must be given the clout it needs to protect our electoral integrity.

Compared to the analogue days of 2000, by the 2019 election, online spending accounted for nearly two thirds of the Conservatives’ advertising budget, and millions more were spent by opaque political outfits on social media. And yet campaigners still do not have to tell you who is behind the political ads you see online at election time, which are trying to shift the debate and sway your vote.

Twenty years since the establishment of the Electoral Commission, voters deserve to know who’s targeting them online.

Scotland will introduce online ‘imprints’ – saying who is funding online political ads – for Holyrood and local elections on December 7th, after announcing the plans just a few months ago. It shows what is possible when there is the political will. Now let’s get on with it.

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