Campaigners slam government inaction over ‘Wild West’ in campaign rules
Campaigners have slammed the ‘conspicuous silence’ in the Queen’s Speech on action to end the ‘wild west’ in political campaign rules.
The ERS say the government must listen to calls from the Digital, Culture, Media and Spot committee when it comes to the Online Harms bill , and fast-track proposals for an ‘imprint’ regime for online political ad transparency.
The Electoral Reform Society, FairVote and Transparency are calling for new emergency legislation, warning that loopholes in the current laws put free and fair elections under threat.
A new briefing  from the Electoral Reform Society, published today, points to over a dozen ‘major loopholes’ that make elections vulnerable to ‘dodgy donors, dark ads and disinformation’. They include:
- Donations can be channelled through the use of Unincorporated Associations, 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 the voting
- 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 regulated campaign period, without funding transparency
- Self-regulation is not working: 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 can be seen as the ‘cost of doing business’, while the EC lack the investigatory powers of the Information Commissioner
The Electoral Reform Society have made the call to modernise the UK’s outdated campaign laws – which haven’t been updated since 2000 – warning that the current regulations have created a ‘wild west’ open to exploitation and abuse.
Current laws regulating digital campaigning are now nearly twenty years old. PPERA came into law in 2000 – when just 13% of people had access to the internet. Now millions are spent at elections on online campaigning, while the internet has also opened up greater potential for making untraceable foreign donations.
The ERS’ call for emergency legislation to bring the outdated regulations up to date to ensure any snap election isn’t vulnerable to foreign interference is supported by Damian Collins MP, Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee  as well as campaign groups FairVote and Transparency International.
Darren Hughes, Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Society said:
“It’s been nearly twenty years since our election laws were last updated it’s becoming increasingly clear our laws are not fit for the digital age. This lack of regulation has created an online ‘wild west’ free from scrutiny and transparency.
“The integrity of our democratic processes is too important to do nothing yet current regulations are riddled with loopholes that mean our elections are vulnerable to foreign interference, dodgy donations and disinformation.
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.
“As talk of a fresh general election or referendum heats up, the need to bring Britain’s outdated election laws into the 21st century is urgent. We cannot leave the task of protecting our democracy’s future to the whim of today’s tech giants.
“It is time for a comprehensive reform of our dangerously outdated campaign rules. There have been enough consultations: as we noted in our report Reining in the Wild West, regulators, campaigners and academics agree on many proposals for change. This cannot wait – our democracy is too important for that.”
Backing the calls, Kyle Taylor, Director of FairVote UK, said:
“With a probable General Election and possible Referendum in the near future, we urgently need emergency legislation to update our election laws.
“Closing the loopholes highlighted in this briefing would be an important step. This is not about advocating for either political side. This is about protecting the rules that govern our democracy.”
Rose Zussman, Senior Policy Officer at Transparency International UK:
“There is growing consensus that the rules underpinning our democratic institutions ensure neither the integrity of the electoral process nor the integrity of those in public office. It’s critical that Parliament takes urgent action to root out deficiencies in our electoral law at a time when democracy in the UK is under immense pressure. Leaving democratic reform on the ‘too difficult’ pile for another day risks further eroding what’s left of the public’s trust.”
Full briefing available at: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fair-elections-under-threat-The-Loophole-List-1.pdf
The ERS’ April report, Reining in the Political ‘Wild West’: Campaign Rules for the 21st Century called for:
- Extending the elections ‘imprint’ requirement to online campaign materials and improving how campaigners report funding and spending, to make clear who was behind online political content/ads
- Creating a single online database of political adverts, which would be publicly available, easily searchable and with clear transparency standards.
- Ensuring that those charged with enforcing the rules have sufficient enforcement powers and resources that act as a meaningful deterrent against wrongdoing – including upping the maximum £20,000 Electoral Commission fine and increase their investigatory capabilities
- Establishing a statutory code of practice for political parties and campaigners around online campaigning and the use of personal data
- Comprehensively reviewing our electoral law, ensuring that it is updated and future-proofed for the digital age
- Closing campaign funding loopholes, including tightening rules around foreign funding of political campaigns and increasing donor transparency
NOTES TO EDITORS
The Queen’s Speech states: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/839035/Queen_s_Speech_background_briefing.pdf
The Government has committed to implementing an imprints regime for digital election material. This will ensure greater transparency and make it clearer to the electorate who has produced and promoted online political materials. The Government will bring forward proposals for the technical implementation in the coming months.
The Government will launch a consultation to consider measures to strengthen the provisions that protect our democracy from foreign interference. This is part of our work to continue to safeguard our democracy, strengthen our resilience and ensure that the regulatory framework is as watertight as possible. We will shortly be holding discussions with interested groups as well as exploring the potential for cross-party agreement.
 See here https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/an-election-could-happen-at-any-time-electoral-law-needs-to-be-urgently-updated/
 New briefing available here: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fair-elections-under-threat-The-Loophole-List.pdf