Referendum spending is a murky world – when it should be crystal clear

Darren Hughes
Darren Hughes

Posted on the 8th January 2018

Negotiations on the UK’s exit from the European Union will dominate much of the political agenda this year. But 18 months on from the Brexit referendum, questions are still being asked about whether campaigners played by the rules when it came to spending. 

The Electoral Commission, which regulates political spending, is already investigating £600,000 spent by a pro-Brexit campaign run set up by university student Darren Grimes.

And now allegations have emerged concerning various Remain campaigns as to whether they were working together in such a way that it amounted to ‘coordinated spending’ –  thereby potentially breaching spending limits.

It is a murky picture of seemingly endless claims and counter-claims, with former cabinet minister Priti Patel among those giving their two pennies worth in recent days.

The rules state that different groups can ‘liaise and discuss campaigning approaches’ – but must not spend money on joint advertising campaigns.

That’s because registered campaigners were limited as to how much they could spend during the formal ‘referendum period’ which ran from April 15 until the ballot on June 23.

Designated lead campaigners had a spending limit of £7 million each, while other registered campaigners had a ceiling of £700,000.

If these rules were breached, it poses a major risk that the one side or the other was able to gain an unfair advantage, by splitting spending among lots of smaller organisations.

Limits are there for a reason: to prevent campaigns being held to ransom by big donors – and to prevent an arms race between opposing factions.

A major concern is that what constitutes ‘joint spending’ between groups is not clear – which is why the Electoral Commission has called on the government to clarify the legal definition.

It wants campaigners to be required to state who they worked with and how much they each spent on their spending returns.

It’s absolutely right that the rules should be made crystal clear, given the importance of the EU referendum and others which may follow.

But more than that – there must be complete openness when it comes to spending around such votes.

All of this fits into a broader issue: the rules on all aspects of how referendums are conducted need updating and strengthening to ensure we have elections fit for the 21

To take one example: the standard of debate during the EU referendum was dire. Polling commissioned by the Electoral Reform Society highlighted showed far too many people felt they were ill-informed about the central issues.

There needs to be a check on the standard of debate – from properly funded, impartial information sources to in-person, public forums that allow for real, informed discussion.

Our report on the referendum, It’s Good To Talk, made nine key recommendations to improve the conduct of future referendums. These include a minimum six-month regulated campaigning period to ensure time for vibrant public discussion, and for a definitive ‘rulebook’ to be published, setting out the technical aspects of the vote as soon as possible after the passing of any referendum Bill.

There is also an important role to be fulfilled outside of campaign groups. Our ‘Better Referendum’ initiative demonstrated a widespread appetite for people to gather and deliberate issues between themselves.

Not everything in politics has to come at a huge financial or democratic cost. Decisions should be determined by informed choices about policy rather than which side spends the most.

There is the potential for referendums to be highly-effective democratic tools – but that will not be the case until the labyrinth of current spending rules are cleared up.

Picture credit Abi Begum, Flickr. 

Read our report It’s Good to Talk.
  • Frankedl

    I think the spending rules are insignificant compared to the way the votes are counted.
    End Postal voting now, it’s too easy to fiddle.

    • Marcia McGrail

      well said – unless there is a VERY good reason not to be eyeballed at a voting station, the workings of democracy must be transparent & civilised.

  • Tim Williamson

    Very nice work by ERS……but aren’t we missing the biggest undemocratic feature of Brexit?
    Shouldn’t we familiarise ourselves with the work of the investigative journalist Carol Cadwalladr?
    She reports on how much of VoteLeave’s money was spent, where and how.
    “In his summary of where and how Vote Leave spent its money, Cummings writes that 98% of its budget went online on ads that received nearly a billion impressions. This was where the battle for Brexit was won: on the internet.”
    She reports on how money moved through various agencies: the DUP, the MOD Psychological Operations, Robert Mercer’s company Cambridge Analytica through to AggregateIQ in Canada where Vote Leave (the official Leave campaign) chose to spend £3.9m, more than half its official £7m campaign budget.
    This “dark” campaigning operates through social media specifically targeting through Facebook.
    This amounts to brainwashing in a way the USSR could never achieve.
    The same channels were successfully used by Trump in his campaign, notably delighting Farage…..

    In a democracy the electorate must be informed but not brainwashed. The ERS needs to address this issue seriously.

    • sruoypU

      the only ” brainwashing ” was done by the Remoaners like yourself … not the Russians … Tim nice but dim >>>

  • barrydavies

    Well it was clear to everyone that the pro remain propaganda leaflet “true facts” sent out by the government, to every household was not included in the remain fiscal spend figures, so the research should start with that deliberate breach of the rules.

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