MPs launch cross-party bid to rein in Britain’s ‘wild west’ electoral campaign laws

Posted on the 15th May 2019

  • Statement from the Electoral Reform Society and FairVote: for immediate release, Wednesday 15th May
  • For further information or bids contact mediaoffice@electoral-reform.org.uk / 07717211630 or FairVote’s Kyle Taylor on 07745934433

MPs from across the political divide will step up efforts to update Britain’s analogue-age election rules on Wednesday, amid growing fears ‘dark money and disinformation’ could undermine the next General Election.  

The All Party Parliamentary Group for Electoral Campaign Transparency – being formed in Parliament on Wednesday (15th May) – will launch an inquiry into Britain’s electoral campaign rules. It will take evidence from a experts and civil society to feed into a Green Paper advising the government on how to better safeguard and strengthen our democracy.

It comes after increasing pressure on the government to act to safeguard elections from unscrupulous political donations, ‘dark ads’ online and foreign interference.

The government recently published its response to the consultation on ‘Protecting the Debate’, pledging some changes [1]. But there is little detail so far, campaigners say.

Recent revelations about wrongdoing in the Brexit referendum – from the Cambridge Analytica scandal to reports of over-spending – have spurred on the new group. However, the APPG will ‘look forwards, not backwards’, arguing the issue of electoral integrity is ‘bigger than Brexit’.

MPs already set to be involved include Brexit select committee member Stephen Kinnock (Lab), Caroline Lucas (Green), Sir Nicholas Soames (Con), SNP frontbencher Deidre Brock, and Lib Dem spokesperson Wera Hobhouse (Lib Dem), with many more set to join.

It comes amid reports that less than two weeks before elections for the European Parliament, a constellation of websites and social media accounts linked to Russia or far-right groups is ‘spreading disinformation, encouraging discord and amplifying distrust’ in major parties [2].

Stephen Kinnock, Labour MP for Aberavon, who will chair the new group, said:

“The fall-out from the 2016 referendum has exposed the fact that our democracy is in danger of being overwhelmed by a toxic combination of dodgy data and dirty money. Drip by drip we have seen how our legislative and regulatory frameworks are simply not fit for purpose.

“Our political system can only function effectively if the public is confident that our elections and referenda are being policed effectively and that the playing field is level. Yet we currently have analogue regulations governing a digital age.

That’s why I’ve been working with Fair Vote and the Electoral Reform Society to set up the APPG for Electoral Campaigning Transparency. If we fail to tackle this issue head-on now, then future generations will pay a heavy price.”

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

“The need to bring Britain’s outdated election laws into the 21st century is urgent. As things stand, our elections are vulnerable to foreign interference, dis-information and illicit donations. We cannot leave the task of protecting our democracy’s future to the whim of today’s tech giants.

“Political parties spent around £3.2 million on Facebook adverts during the 2017 general election – an increase of more than double since the 2015 election. When our primary election rules were created in 2000, the figure was £0: giants like Facebook and Twitter didn’t even exist.

“Online campaigning is an unregulated ‘wild west’ that threatens the principles of transparency, fairness and the notion of a level playing field. This APPG is a vital step forward in bringing these rules into the 21st century at last.”

Kyle Taylor, Director of Fair Vote UK, said:

“We’ve been trying to no avail for over a year to move the dial on these crucial issues. The APPG gives us the opportunity to gain a wide range of views from practitioners and experts while building cross-party consensus on key, uncontroversial areas with the hope of delivering real change this year.

“This issue is bigger than Brexit and with this APPG, we will work with politicians to devise measures to ensure that our elections are free and fair, and that the UK’s future truly reflects the will of the people.”


ENDS

Read the ERS’ recent report on the UK’s outdated campaign laws: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/publications/reining-in-the-political-wild-west-campaign-rules-for-the-21st-century/

Notes to Editors

The work of this APPG will cover:

  • Transparency: How we ensure citizens have access to information about both online and offline aspects of election and referendum campaigns
  • Deterrence: How we ensure the EC has the level of armoury needed to deter and, if necessary, penalise adequately
  • Monitoring: How we ensure there is a process to review whether campaigning laws are up-to-date and can be reformed immediately when needed.

Areas of investigation for the group’s inquiry:

  • Funding and spending on campaigns (to include issues such as where money comes from, money spent outside of regulated periods (e.g. database creation, involvement of third parties/external agencies etc), reporting on spending (e.g. breakdown of social media spend, reporting in real time), local and national spending limits and regulating the difference
  • Online political campaign adverts to include but not be limited to: imprints, public searchable ad databases and codes of practice for campaigners
  • Investigatory and enforcement powers of the Electoral Commission;
  • Possible regulatory frameworks to ensure maintenance of laws put in place

Some of the MPs supporting the APPG, from across five parties:

Stephen Kinnock (Lab)

Caroline Lucas (Green)

Nicholas Soames (Con)

Deidre Brock (SNP)

Wera Hobhouse (Lib Dem)

Owen Smith (Lab)

Alistair Carmichael (Lib Dem)

Rushanara Ali (Lab)

Tom Brake (Lib Dem)

Brendan O’Hara (SNP)

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-safeguards-uk-elections

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/12/world/europe/russian-propaganda-influence-campaign-european-elections-far-right.html?te=1&nl=morning-briefing&emc=edit_MBE_p_20190513&section=topNews

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