Electoral rules ‘not fit for purpose’, with light-touch punishment ‘cost of doing business’ say campaigners

Posted on the 17th July 2018

Need to protect democratic institutions is bigger issue than Brexit, say MPs at ERS event.

  • Statement from the Electoral Reform Society following Parliamentary event [1] and Urgent Question [2]

Campaigners and politicians are demanding action to ‘rein in the wild west of election campaigning’, following news that Vote Leave will be fined just £61,000 for breaking the rules during the EU referendum.

Cross-party figures including Stephen Kinnock, former BeLeave Treasurer Shahmir Sanni, the ERS, Amber Rudd, FairVote UK and investigators demanded reform at an event in Parliament today.

Campaigners are calling for change to bolster the Electoral Commission, and update the regulations on online advertising and campaign funding – with suggestions for tougher fines for rule-breaking, live reporting of donations, and ‘imprints’ for online campaign ads.

And Stephen Kinnock is writing to the Speaker to call for a Parliamentary commission on campaign regulation.

The move comes as MPs tabled an Urgent Question [2] in Parliament on today’s Vote Leave story and the need to review the rules.

Speaking at the ERS Parliamentary event on the ‘campaign wild west’ today [1], Stephen Kinnock MP said:

“Our democracy is under attack by a mixture of foreign influence and abuse of the rules – and the use of finance, influence and data in ways that are clearly not aligned with what our laws dictate.

“We’ve got to be mindful of lessons from history here. I have serious concerns about the future of our democracy.

“The legitimacy of the referendum result is bound to be challenged from this, but we keep must our eyes on the main prize: the integrity and robustness of our democratic system.”

He added: “We’re at the thin end of the wedge – we just don’t know the extent of foreign interference in our elections.”

Commenting on the fines levied on Vote Leave, he said: “The Electoral Commission’s fines are laughable…they are seen a cost of doing business.”

“But the Electoral Commission’s announcements should be seen as a fork in the road – a realisation that there is something wrong in the heart of democratic processes in our system.

“If there is no action, abuse will continue and trust will decline – more dark money and dark data will flood the system and buy influence.

“We need a root and branch review of regulation – a full Parliamentary commission, bringing in legal, policy and regulatory experts. It needs to make recommendations, set out a Green Paper and then proceed to repealing legislation.

“This is bigger than Brexit, and will affect the future of our democracy.”

ERS Research Director Jess Garland said:

“Dark money and dark data’ are coming together to undermine principles that our democracy is founded upon. When these principles cannot be upheld, neither can the results. The principle of a level playing field has all but disappeared.”

Amber Rudd MP told the meeting:

“The public expect to have confidence in our electoral system. We need to be able to call out Russian interference more aggressively when we see it.

“The rules were designed for an analogue age and should be brought into the 21st century.”

Kyle Taylor, Director of Fair Vote UK, said:

“We have seen a gross violation of electoral law and our democratic principles – and today is when reforms need to start.

“The Electoral Commission must have stronger investigative powers, the power to issue unlimited fines and there must be a clampdown on coordinating groups.

“All spending returns should be online – we need full transparency in spending and a pause on digital ads until there is proper regulation, including imprints for targeted ads.

“The Electoral Commission and Information Commissioner have already endorsed and asked for these things. Let’s stop asking questions, let’s stop kicking things into the long grass, let’s start now.

“This is much bigger than Brexit: breaking election law is undermining the very fabric of how we believe our society should make rules. We are sleepwalking into a future I don’t want to be a part of.”

Former BeLeave Treasurer and whistleblower Shahmir Sanni said:

“Politicians and cabinet ministers called me a liar without looking at the evidence. Now I have been vindicated.

“Our democracy has been tainted and we need to pay attention. Campaigns are not valuing the democratic process, not valuing the institutions that people fought for.”

These people “have a total disrespect for what Britain has been fighting for, for centuries – the value of the law,” he said.

“There are serious questions about how much influence Russia had on Brexit and our elections.

“We are already at the point where democracy and our institutions are being doubted – serious action needs to be taken to hold politicians to account and give institutions more power.”

ISTOK Associates’ Neil Barnett, who is investigating the issue of ‘dark money’ in politics, said:

“We have seen the rise of ‘astroturfing’ – the use of multiple organisations which seem separate.

“Something has changed – these methods are being weaponised wholesale by hostile states…If these vulnerabilities aren’t plugged [and]…if our government systems are penetrated by states that want to do us harm, our politics and alliances are finished.

He added that at present: “It is possible for Putin to set up a British registered company that is doing some business and generating some turnover and then donate to a political party. There is no need, from a legal point of view, to hide the origin of your money.

“Huge sums of money can also be sliced and diced through crypto-currencies and donated in small amounts [below declaration threshold] – Trump’s donations through these means took off vertically. Another example of analogue-age regulation being completely unfit [for purpose].”

He made several recommendations:

1. No representation without taxation: if you want to have influence over political system, then you should pay tax on your money – also applies to Trusts and Foundations.”

2. Where there is suspicion that money comes from dubious source, instead of mounting inquisitorial investigation, the burden of proof should fall on donor – they should document where money comes from – a deterrent effect against malpractice.

3. More powerful enforcement. Far harsher penalties, including jail time, as a deterrent.”

The ERS is coordinating much of the discussion on this topic – contact the Media Office for more information.


[1] More information about the event here: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/media-centre/press-releases/event-brexit-whistleblower-and-election-reformers-to-debate-how-to-rein-in-campaign-wild-west/

[2] https://www.parliament.uk/business/news/2018/july/urgent-question-on-electoral-commission-investigation-into-vote-leave/

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