With proportional representation a long-term policy of the Liberal Democrats, we took the opportunity to discuss the wider crisis in our democracy at the Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference in Bournemouth this year.
As the possibility of a snap election increases, the need for an overhaul of our ageing campaign rules increases. The main legislation regulating political parties’ campaigning activity and finance dates back to 2000 – before Facebook (2004) or Twitter (2006) existed, let alone had any role in political campaigns.
With that in mind we teamed up with the Social Liberal Forum, Prof David Howarth (Former MP and Electoral Commissioner 2010–2018), Dr Jessica Garland (ERS), Kyle Taylor (Fair Vote Project) and Wera Hobhouse MP (All-Party Parliamentary Group on Campaign Transparency) for a packed out discussion how our rules could be updated for the digital age.
With a queue of people waiting outside, David Howarth first outlined the three goals of electoral law: firstly to limit foreign interference, secondly to increase transparency and thirdly to cap spending and prevent a bidding war. But now we have moved online and away from paper leaflets, it’s very easy to hide where the money is coming from, so how can accomplish these three goals? Can we even track donations in order to cap them?
Within this context, David explained that there is also the issue of how we regulate elections. In the UK we allow campaigns to happen, then challenge the legality afterwards, is that good enough? When campaigners can just leave after a referendum, how do you hold them to account?
For those with deep pockets, a substantial fine would be more than worth paying to get a major political change.
Drawing on her experience as a member of the ERS Council before she entered parliament, Wera Hobhouse MP approached the problem from a different angle. What is a good democracy? We can attempt to limit foreign interference, and create spending rules, but if people aren’t engaged with politics and their communities then they will always be vulnerable to misleading claims.
We need a more deliberative democracy where people have the political knowledge and critical thinking skills needed to properly judge political claims. As well as political education we can expand the use of tools like citizens’ assemblies, where a representative group of around 50 to 200 citizens, are chosen at random from the general public, like a jury. Citizens then hear from experts and campaigners from across the spectrum and society to learn, consult, and then discuss between them on ways forward on complicated issues – away from the sometimes shrill, antagonistic process of (for example) an immediate, full-scale referendum.
Looking forward, Wera pointed out that “The climate emergency is going to be bigger than Brexit, we need the tools now to help fix it”.
Kyle Taylor introduced Fair Vote UK and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency. The APPG was originally formed by Fair Vote UK, Stephen Kinnock MP, and the Electoral Reform Society, and focuses on issues that fall within the scope of the Electoral Commission’s three themes: Transparency, Deterrence and Monitoring.
The APPG is soon to report on what could be done, so Kyle took us through some of the suggestions. There are too many to be listed here, so look out for the report when it is published.
Finally Our Director of Policy and Research, Dr Jess Garland took to the stage. Who should make the rules? “We must also avoid ceding responsibility for finding a solution to the tech giants. We mustn’t say “you decide what form of transparency is acceptable” – we need rules that match our democratic norms and values. So we must pull the debate back to what we want our laws to achieve, what principles we are defending.”
There are a vast number of issues wrapped up in the debate about online campaigning. For instance, we are seeing issues about the misuse of data, concerns about mis- and dis-information. There are also new concerns about the role of third parties in online campaigns and about the role of money in politics – both the sums and their source. “each of these issues either falls to a different regulator or between them. And because of this, there’s a risk they get placed in the ‘too difficult’ box. That’s why the work of the campaign transparency APPG is so important because it cuts through the confusion, focusing on what’s possible and keeping the scope within electoral law”.
We look to be approaching another General Election, sooner rather than later, and we can surely expect to see another huge increase in online campaigning – even greater than in 2017. So we must ensure that online campaigning does not remain beyond the law.
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