Cross-party figures unite to call for transparency in ‘Wild West’ online campaigning

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 25th September 2020

Political figures across the spectrum have backed our calls for reform of Britain’s ‘wild west’ election campaign rules following the launch of our latest report.

Conservative, Labour, SNP, Green and Liberal Democrat figures have joined civil society organisations in calling for urgent action to close the loopholes on ‘dark ads, dodgy donations and disinformation’ online.

Democracy in the Dark, commissioned by the Electoral Reform Society, highlights the fact that nearly a year after the election, official insights on spending returns are yet to have been published. Yet even when the official figures are released, lax reporting rules mean voters will be little wiser as to how campaigners were targeting their resources.

The 2019 election saw an estimated 50% surge in online campaign spending compared to 2017 –much of it from previously-unknown ‘outrider’ groups – with little transparency over funding.

Research like this, which gets picked up by major news outlets and helps to shape work in parliament, is only made possible thanks to the continued long term support of the ERS’ members.

If you are committed to reforming the way our elections work for the better, to create a more democratic country for your friends, family and community – now is the time to show you care by joining the ERS.

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Rt Hon Dame Cheryl Gillan, Conservative MPand Chairperson of the Venice Commission’s Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy, said: “I welcome this paper as a contribution towards the debate about how we have more transparency in the money spent on campaigning in the electoral process, particularly in the light of the rapidly developing digital world.

“What was actually spent on digital campaigning [in 2019] is far from clear. We must continue to examine how we can ensure we have free and fair elections and what changes are necessary to our laws as technology continues to advance.”

Lord Paul Tyler, the Liberal Democrats’ Lords spokesperson for political and constitutional reform, said: “This could not be more timely.  The Government are still dragging their feet on vital Codes of Practice, which the Electoral Commission published in July 2019, pulling election campaign spending out into broad daylight.  If our citizens cannot rely on complete transparency of funding in elections the whole of our democracy lacks integrity.

Stephen Kinnock MP, Chair of the APPG on Electoral Campaigning Transparency, said: “This well researched and informative new report from the Electoral Reform Society further exposes the extent to which secretive online campaigning continues to threaten our democracy. Voters deserve to know who is targeting then with political advertisements, and must have confidence that the ads are being funded legally.

Digital campaigning remains an unregulated Wild West, and the government must get to grips with this now.

Tommy Sheppard MP, SNP Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, said:This is essential work and a vital report. We must be wary of taking many of the electoral freedoms we have enjoyed over the years for granted. In the online age we need more scrutiny and regulation of the powerful not less.

Green peer Natalie Bennett said: That our current political system is outdated, dysfunctional, far from democratic, with all of us getting the politics a few pay, for is not news. But the Electoral Reform Society deserves congratulations for setting out so clearly just how online spending is magnifying the failures of our antique system.

“Its 10-point plan for action is practical, simple and deliverable, including elements such as increasing the maximum fine that the Electoral Commission can levy, something the Green Party has been calling for since that body asked for the enhanced power in 2018.

“The ERS describes the current situation of online campaigning as a Wild West, and that’s an accurate metaphor. The firepower is all on the side of big money from dubious sources and it is democracy that is under attack.

Kyle Taylor, Director of FairVote UK, added:”This report is yet more evidence that the online sphere remains dangerously unregulated. The Government is distracted by problems that don’t exist when the real issue is a system that hasn’t kept pace with the digital revolution. This is plain for all else to see and Fair Vote UK endorse ERS’ necessary and practical reforms.

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