New report shows why Britain’s campaign rules need an overhaul before next May

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 23rd April 2020

New analysis of the 2019 General Election has highlighted major pressures on Britain’s electoral process.

The Electoral Commission’s report on the last election says: “The UK’s electoral administration structures are operating under significant strain, and…people have growing concerns about some aspects of election campaigns.”

It holds up. The UK’s election watchdog found that 58 per cent of people think that in general “campaigning online is untrue or misleading”.

And it’s no wonder why. The last major electoral legislation was in 2000 – and has totally failed to keep up with the world of online campaigning.

The ERS and anti-corruption campaigners have been calling for an update to Britain’s online campaign rules for years. So far the government have been conspicuously slow to act.

The non-existent online rules leave the door open to anonymous political ads, foreign funding of our politics, and a deluge of misleading social media tactics.

The UK’s official election regulator notes that: “Misleading content and presentation techniques are undermining voters’ trust.” Yet more clear examples surfaced last year, from the manipulation of videos to secretive online ads trying to sway the result – without saying who was behind them.

Both the Electoral Commission and the ERS are calling for swift action to ensure all online campaign ads include an ‘imprint’ outlining who is promoting and paying for the material, as well as clear national standards for social media giants’ ‘ad libraries’. Studies show the tech giants’ transparency levels leave a lot to be desired.

As the Electoral Commission note in their report: “It is too often unclear who is behind digital election campaign material. Significant public concerns about the transparency of digital campaigns risk overshadowing their benefits.”

The Commission’s report also points to huge strains for Electoral Returning Officers, under Britain’s ‘patchwork’ voter registration system, operated by hundreds of separate local authorities with no automation. Like the ERS, the regulator is calling for moves towards automatic registration, “integrating registration applications into other public service contacts” and departments. Too often groups like the ERS are forced to launch major voter registration drives but without people being to check whether they’re already on the register.

However, the government has consistently kicked the can down the road when it comes to electoral reform – despite an overwhelming consensus for adopting online ‘imprints’ for political ads.

As the regulator notes: “The UK Government needs to make progress on its planned consultation on legislation to ensure campaigners have to include information about themselves on digital campaign material.” So far we’ve had warm words but no action.

This new report is a call to action, to bolster Britain’s struggling democracy. There are simple, consensus-driven reforms that we need – such as ‘imprints’ for online ads and closing the loopholes on foreign funding. We’ve set out a list of current loopholes and solutions.

The coronavirus crisis has shown the need for swift action to tackle misleading information online. Parties also need to put their house in order on that front – and find long-term solutions to create a more informed debate. Bolstering citizenship education, and ensuring sustainable, independent funding for fact-checking services would help.

But ‘fake news’ isn’t only one part of a bigger picture: making Britain’s election and campaign rules fit for the 21st century.

Without reform, next May’s elections are vulnerable dark ads, dodgy donations and disinformation. When this crisis is over we hope to see real progress to ensure next year’s elections are truly free and fair.

Read the ERS’ report on the ‘Wild West’ in online campaigning.

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