Over the weekend, the co-founder of the Superdry fashion label donated £1m to the People’s vote campaign, with the funds set to be used to conduct “one of the most detailed polling exercises ever undertaken by a campaign”.
It could fire the starting gun for a referendum spending spree – before one has even been announced.
We know that millions of pounds in donations were given to major Brexit campaign groups just outside of the official referendum period.
There is nothing in current law to stop foreign donors or companies ploughing tens of millions into political campaigns outside of formal election times – giving them carte blanche to steer our political debate.
Furthermore, current regulations do not require third-party campaigners to disclose money or assets they have prior to registering with the Electoral Commission – or to be transparent about their spending outside the regulated campaign period.
This is a huge blind spot in our electoral law, and renders our politics an unequal free-for-all outside of regulated campaign periods.
The Electoral Commission recognises the loopholes in our current regulatory framework. In their June 2018 report on digital campaigning, the Commission noted:
“Campaigners may use this gap [before an official election or referendum period] to spend large sums of money that don’t count towards their spending limits.”
And the rules we have only apply to official ‘registered campaigners’.
The elections watchdog recommended that they and the UK’s governments and legislatures should reconsider when the spending and funding controls should start to apply before a referendum.
The Commission also recommended that all new political parties and referendum campaigners should submit a declaration of assets and liabilities over £500 upon registration.
We risk watching a (re-)emerging Brexit campaign spiral into a spending arms race – with no level playing field and a debate steered by those with the most cash.
The whole basis of democracy is that it is a defence against concentrations of power: it now looks like that is being drastically undermined.
Addressing these loopholes must be a priority for any review of Britain’s outdated campaign regulations. We all lose out if our politics is driven purely by who can splash the most cash.
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