Six ways to rein in the campaign ‘Wild West’

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive

Posted on the 5th February 2019

On Monday, the ERS launched a united call for change – with election regulators, campaigners, academics and MPs alike demanding a review of Britain’s political campaign laws.  

This week marks 15 years since the launch of Facebook. When our campaign rules were written in 2000, the site was practically unimaginable.

Fast forward to today: political parties spent around £1.3 million on Facebook during the 2015 general election. This more than doubled two years later, with parties spending around £3.2 million on Facebook in the 2017 campaign.

There are six things the government should do to drag our out-dated election rules into the 21st century:

  1. No more ‘dark ads’: We need to extend the ‘imprint’ requirement – where materials must show who produced them and on whose behalf – to online political advertising. It’s bizarre that physical leaflets have to say who’s promoting them but not online ads.
  2. Opening up campaign finance: We need to improve how campaigners report funding and spending, including reporting social media spend separately, reporting spend/donations in a digital format (rather than the archaic system of scanning hand-written files), and reporting spend/donations in real time during a campaign.
  3. Creating a single online database of political adverts, which would be publicly available and easily searchable, to increase transparency and allow voters to identify who has produced a piece of content. In an age of ‘micro-targeting’ thousands of separate messages to small groups, this is vital for trust and transparency.
  4. Giving the regulators greater enforcement powers: strengthening the fines or sanctions so they can act as a meaningful deterrent against wrongdoing. The ICO’s powers were increased considerably in the past year, showing what can be achieved if there is political will. Now the Electoral Commission’s paltry £20,000 maximum fine for rule-breaking should be uncapped.
  5. Level playing field: We must establish a statutory code of practice for political parties and campaigners without delay.
  6. A comprehensive review and overhaul of our electoral law, to make it future-proofed for the digital age.

Now campaigners are taking this message to government – urging the Prime Minister to rein in the UK’s campaign ‘Wild West’ before it’s too late.

As reported in the Huffington Post, read our open letter: “It’s time to rein in the campaign ‘Wild West’” 

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.  

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: Facebook didn’t even exist. Yet today marks 15 years since the launch of this social media giant that has changed how campaigning works.

Online campaigning is an unregulated ‘wild west’ that threatens the principles of transparency, fairness and the notion of a level playing field. The ease with which our rules can be broken or dodged has been revealed in a spate of recent scandals.

Our new report “Reining in the ‘Wild West’: Campaign Rules for the 21st Century” is a united call from regulators, campaigners, academics and leading cross-party MPs to protect our democracy in a digital age. 

It is time for a full review of our dangerously outdated campaign rules. Without reform, we are leaving the door wide open to democratic failure.


Dr Jess Garland, Director of Policy and Research, Electoral Reform Society
Rt Hon Dame Cheryl Gillan MP
Stephen Kinnock MP
Bethany Shiner, Lecturer in Law at Middlesex University, London
FullFact (Cassie Staines, Senior Policy Officer)
Doteveryone (Jacob Ohrvik-Stott, Researcher)
Sam Jeffers, co-founder, ‘Who Targets Me’

Sign our petition to rein in the online 'Wild West'

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