This week marks 20 years since the Electoral Commission was founded. It’s a time for celebration of its successes but also a time to look to its future.
That’s why former Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select-Committee chair Damian Collins MP (Con) and Labour’s Stephen Kinnock MP – co-founder of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency – have called for the UK’s election watchdog to be given the powers it needs to oversee our democracy in the digital age.
The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act – given Royal Assent 20 years ago on the 30th November – set up clear rules on donations, spending and campaigning, marking the most significant modernisation of the system since the Victorian era. It also established the UK’s independent elections watchdog, after years of sleaze scandals regarding political party funding.
But now, 20 years later, the threats our democracy faces have changed, and we find ourselves facing down an unregulated Wild West of digital campaigning – free from many of the regulations that apply to printed material.
Both the Electoral Reform Society and MPs have long warned that voters will continue to be ‘left in the dark’ over who is behind online ads if action is not taken soon.
Speaking to mark the 20th anniversary of the Electoral Commission, Stephen Kinnock, chair of the APPG on Electoral Campaigning Transparency, said: “[This] is a reminder that UK election laws have not been revised since 2001, a time when Facebook and Twitter did not exist. As a result, the Electoral Commission has become an analogue regulator in a digital age, unable to keep up with the threats posed to our democracy.
“To tackle dirty money and dodgy data, the UK government must focus on reforming the Electoral Commission to give it more powers, not fewer. The objective must be to make the Electoral Commission fit for purpose, rather than to close it down, create a vacuum and then try to ‘reinvent the wheel’.
“The APPG on Electoral Campaigning Transparency’s report from earlier this year, ‘Defending Our Democracy in the Digital Age’, sets out 20 recommendations about how we can increase transparency, deter malpractice and monitor the system, in order to safeguard our democracy for generations to come.”
The intervention follows a joint call from democracy campaigners on Saturday for the Conservative Party to abandon threats to abolish the Electoral Commission. A letter to Michael Gove from the leaders of six organisations said an independent elections regulator is a ‘cornerstone of a functioning democracy’.
However, MPs from all parties have called for the elections watchdog to be strengthened along the lines of the Information Commissioner’s Office.
Damian Collins, former chair of the DCMS select committee, said: “The report from our 2018/19 select committee inquiry on ‘Disinformation and fake news’ concluded that ‘Electoral law in this country is not fit for purpose for the digital age’. A reformed and empowered Electoral Commission must be central to delivering the changes we need to see.
“We need to make it a requirement that digital imprints be included on political adverts so that people can easily see who has paid for them, and who they are there to promote, just as is the case in printed materials. Social media companies shouldn’t allow basic breaches of current electoral law, by not intervening to stop foreign organisations targeting political ads at voters in the UK. Equally online payment platforms should block foreign donations to political campaigns.
“As online media becomes an increasingly important tool, used daily by millions of people in this country to get the news, and find out more about the issues that affect them, we cannot allow it to become a Wild West flooded with disinformation and dark money. We need the Electoral Commission, working with other regulatory bodies like the Information Commissioner’s Office and Ofcom, to create the regulatory reforms we need to safeguard democracy in the digital age.”
It’s important that now, as we mark two decades of the Electoral Commission serving as an independent regulator of our elections, campaigners and MPs from across parliament come together to help safeguard them for decades to come.
Transparency and trust are vital in any democracy, but they cannot be taken for granted. We must revisit our political process to ensure they remain free and fair.
Sign our petition to shine a light on online 'dark ads'