Dark ads and dodgy donors: How the Queen’s Speech missed a chance to protect our democracy

Josiah Mortimer
Author:
Josiah Mortimer

Posted on the 18th October 2019

There was a conspicuous silence in the Queen’s Speech on Monday. Despite announcing a bill to protect ‘electoral integrity’ (by making it harder for us all to vote), there was inaction on updating Britain’s outdated election campaign rules.

Britain’s election rules are nearly 20 years old. In many ways, they ignore the existence of the internet – which has completely changed the face of political campaigning. Take online political ads: even if they’re promoting a party or a candidate, they do not have to say who is behind them – unlike printed materials which clearly state who is behind them. It’s one of many loopholes that can and should be urgently tackled if our next election isn’t to fall victim to ‘dark ads’, disinformation and dodgy donations.

Now the Electoral Reform Society, FairVote and Transparency International are calling for new emergency legislation on campaign transparency – warning that dangerous loopholes in the current laws put free and fair elections under threat.

A new briefing from the Electoral Reform Society, published on Monday, points to over a dozen major gaps in the law that make our elections vulnerable. They include:

  • Donations can be channelled through secretive corporate trusts, potentially masking many separate donations through a single entity.
  • The lack of real-time donation reporting during elections means that voters often only find out about potential conflicts of interests or influences driving the debate long after voting has finished.
  • Foreign states, organisations or individuals are able to influence UK campaigns with online ads with little oversight. Millions can also be pumped into campaign groups, including from foreign donors – outside of the regulated campaign period, without funding transparency.
  • Self-regulation is not working and there are serious flaws with the social media giants’ self-declared ‘transparency’ tools. For example, Facebook does not publish which groups are micro-targeted or provide details about who is really behind political pages.
  • Company donors do not need to prove that the funds come from their UK activity. It is therefore possible for any unscrupulous power to set up a UK company and funnel money through it to UK parties.
  • Electoral Commission fines, capped at a maximum of £20,000, can be seen as the ‘cost of doing business’ for an election campaign. At the same time the Electoral Commission lacks the investigatory powers of the Information Commissioner to properly uncover alleged wrongdoing.

The current regulations have created a ‘Wild West’ open to exploitation and abuse. Thankfully a consensus is emerging to reform the system.

When our main election law came into force in 2000, just 13% of people had access to the internet. Now millions are spent at each election on online campaigning, while the internet has also opened up greater potential for making untraceable foreign donations.

The integrity of our democratic processes is too important to do nothing.

As Dr Jess Garland, Director of Policy and Research at the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“The government can no longer keep kicking the can down the road when it comes to dealing with the real threats to our democracy. With an election on the horizon we need emergency legislation now to ensure our elections remain free and fair and don’t become the prey of foreign interference.

“It is disappointing that this Queen’s Speech missed the opportunity to pledge real actions on the glaring loopholes in our electoral law – instead going after ordinary voters through their misguided mandatory voter ID plans.”

Kyle Taylor, Director of FairVote UK, agreed:

“With a probable general election and possible referendum in the near future, we urgently need emergency legislation to update our election laws.”

We’ve had plenty of consultations and pledges for action further down the road. But the problems are clear, many of the solutions obvious – and we need action now.

As Rose Zussman, Senior Policy Officer at Transparency International UK, said:

“Leaving democratic reform on the ‘too difficult’ pile for another day risks further eroding what’s left of the public’s trust.”

While the government goes after ordinary voters through its ‘papers please’ mandatory ID policy, the ERS are focusing on the real threats to democracy. It’s time to bring campaign rules into the 21st century.”

 

 

Read the full ‘Loophole List’, first published by BuzzFeed

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