How can we better regulate our elections? 

Author:
Michela Palese, Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 20th July 2021

Earlier this month, buried amidst the many reactions to the government’s Elections Bill, the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) published its report on regulating election finance, following a year-long inquiry to which we gave evidence.

Despite not receiving as much attention as the Elections Bill, this report makes a series of significant recommendations – many of which the ERS has been calling for a long time – which, if implemented, would genuinely update our election finance rules, and would close many of the loopholes in our current system. Here we outline some of the report’s main recommendations.

Preventing foreign interference

The CSPL calls for a series of measures to be put in place to prevent foreign interference in UK elections, by ensuring donors are based in the UK. These include:

  • Clarifying that, to be permissible, donors must be individuals on a UK electoral register.
  • Ensuring that donations from companies based in the UK do not exceed their net profits after tax for activities generated in the UK.
  • Banning foreign organisations or individuals from buying campaign advertising in the UK.

Enhancing transparency of donations and spending

The report recommends parties and campaigners to have appropriate procedures in place to check the true source of donations. Unincorporated associations (UAs) that meet the threshold for registering with the Electoral Commission, should conduct permissibility checks on relevant donations (i.e. money intended for political activity). There should be greater transparency around political gifts made to UAs. With regards to spending, the CSPL believes that reporting deadlines for parties and campaigners should be shortened, and that their expenditure published more promptly, so as to enhance transparency for and allow scrutiny by the public, journalists and academics.

Meaningful information on digital campaigning

As we’ve long called for, the CSPL recommends that parties and campaigners should be required to provide more detailed invoices and a breakdown of their digital spend to the Electoral Commission, including information on how online political ads were targeted. Crucially this should include which parts of the country ads were targeted in – a vital change given the broken First Past the Post system, which would close the loophole whereby parties can spend heavily in marginal seats, while reporting spending at the national level. It also recommends that the government should legislate to require social media platforms to create advert libraries, which should have information on amount spent, who paid for the advert, and to whom it was targeted (including information about the target audience).

Third party campaigning

As highlighted in our Democracy in the Dark report, third party campaigning increased significantly in recent years, especially during the 2019 general election. Unsurprisingly, the CSPL makes a series of recommendations on how better to regulate it, including requiring third parties to disclose more information when registering with the Electoral Commission – such as a brief summary of the campaign’s purpose, its geographical location, its web address, and whether it is part of a join campaign – so as to increase information around what can be opaque campaigns.

The Electoral Commission

It is in relation to the Electoral Commission, its functions, and powers that the CSPL makes some of its most significant interventions. Recognising the important role the Commission plays in overseeing elections and referendums, regulating political finance, and ensuring public confidence, the CSPL’s recommendations in this regard echo many of our own.

The CSPL argues that the Commission should be given the powers to obtain information outside of an investigation and to share information with other public agencies. It calls for an increase in the maximum fine the Commission can levy to four percent of a campaign’s total spend, or £500,000, whichever is higher. Finally, the Commission’s regulatory powers should be expanded so that it can investigate and sanction candidates for breaking the rules – because of our outdated and disjointed system of political finance, this currently falls under the remit of the police.

Improving the integrity of our elections

The CSPL report highlights many of the vulnerabilities in the current system and rightly calls for stronger regulation and enforcement of campaigns and underlines the important role of the Electoral Commission in preventing and tackling wrongdoing. If the government really wants to improve the integrity of our elections, they should consider the findings of the CSPL report and use its recommendations as a blueprint for how to properly make our election laws fit for purpose.

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