Government inaction has left the door ‘wide open’ to foreign interference in UK politics

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 23rd July 2020

Electoral loopholes are leaving the door wide open to foreign interference, the ERS’ Darren Hughes has said, following the release of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia Report this week.

Darren Hughes told the BBC on Tuesday that we may have only seen the ‘tip of the iceberg’ when it comes to potential foreign interference in our elections, since our electoral laws haven’t been updated in 20 years. That was long before the rise of social media and widespread online political donations.

“There are enough warning lights flashing that the government should be taking this far more seriously than they are. This goes right to the heart of our democratic integrity,” Darren said.

The ERS recently contributed to the All Party Political Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency’s Defending our Democracy in the Digital Age study. This ground-breaking report set out 20 recommendations on how to protect UK elections and referendums from ‘dirty money and dodgy data misuse’.

Last October, the ERS also launched the Loophole List, identifying a snapshot of nearly 20 gaps in our electoral law that are putting democracy at risk. Some of the loopholes mean that donors based in foreign tax havens, or operating through untraceable shell companies can pump in money to influence our political parties. Others allow for unscrupulous individuals and foreign actors to pay for anonymous ‘dark’ ads on line, or pump out disinformation during election periods to sway the result.

This is a long-standing campaign of the ERS. Early last year we published ‘Reining in the Wild West’  which brought together academics, the major regulators in the area, and campaigners to set out vital reforms to close electoral loopholes and update campaign rules to protect democracy.

A key Lords committee also recently condemned the lack of government action in updating electoral law. It pointed to investigations from the US Senate have found that foreign states such as Russia use ‘information warfare’ to sow discord. The Committee also heard that the criteria for ‘success’ for states like Russia were very low – they simply have to add a little instability at a time when a country is vulnerable.

Darren Hughes highlighted that while the social media aspect has received – rightly – a lot of attention, much of the interference is likely to come from ‘old fashioned spy work’ – getting to know respectable people and get them on side. “Donations to political parties, links with some of the think tanks that aren’t always upfront about where their money come from – the report pointed to  this kind of ‘reputation washing’” he said.

When it comes to the unelected House of Lords, this is particularly pertinent: “We have over 800 unelected people in the House of Lords, and there’s not a clear disclosure of business interests,” Darren told the BBC.

The government came under fire for not investigating these threats. This is an issue that goes beyond parties: as we move into a high-technology way of running our politics, we need to close the loopholes. The losers of inaction are the voters – and we should be doing all we can to protect the debate.

Of course, this is not an easy area. But much of the work building consensus for change has already been done. There is widespread recognition the Electoral Commission need greater powers to fine wrongdoers, and for online political ads to have a clear ‘imprint’ saying who paid for them, among other clear policy proposals.

At the moment we don’t have enough information on the scale of possible interference. But we do know that the door is wide open.

It’s time for cool heads, a rigorous approach – and some long-overdue reforms.

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