Who: The Electoral Reform Society (ERS), The Electoral Commission (EC), The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), Middlesex University, The Fair Vote Project, Full Fact, Doteveryone, The Centre for the Analysis of Social Media
Where: United Kingdom
When: 4 February 2019
Law stated as at: 15 March 2019
The ERS has published a 60 page report titled ‘Reining in the Political Wild West: Campaigning Rules for the 21st Century‘. The report collates the views of the ERS, the Electoral Commission and various think tanks, who demand a complete overhaul of the UK’s electoral laws to wade off “dodgy donors, dark ads and disinformation“.
The ERS argues that the government and regulators must work together immediately to modernise the laws and practices that currently govern political campaigning.
No longer is election campaigning confined to door-to-door canvassing and PSA-style adverts on television after the local evening news. Over the last few years, political campaigners have embraced the internet. Social media platforms, in particular, play a vital role in political parties connecting with voters. As such, the report takes aim at social media companies, claiming they fail to make political adverts transparent.
The report also delves into the legal landscape to understand whether current laws are up to scratch. The ICO has proposed a statutory code of practice to promote greater dialogue between regulators and government. It is not clear how a code of practice will sit alongside the GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA 2018), which allows for the processing of personal data for activities that “support or promote democratic engagement“.
To conclude, the ERS makes a number of proposals including:
- extending the imprint requirement, where all marketing materials must show who produced and funded it, to online advertising;
- improving how campaigners report funding and spending;
- creating a single online database of political adverts, making them easily searchable and available publicly;
- increasing enforcement powers for regulators;
- creating a statutory code of practice for political parties and campaigners; and
- undertaking a comprehensive overhaul of our electoral law.
Why this matters:
According to the ERS, in the 2015 general election, political parties spent close to £1.3 million all on one social media platform and this figure nearly tripled just two years later during the 2017 campaign. The figure is only likely to increase in future elections as the power of online political campaigning grows. With this in mind, the calls to update electoral rules and laws to protect from abuses of that power are only getting louder.
The report opines that you do not need to look any further than the United States to see what could happen to British politics without urgent reform. The US system has historically been propped up by large corporations who donate vast amounts of money to elected representatives.
As the prospect of a snap election or referendum seems to be continuously close to materialising, if regulators and the government are truly serious about revamping the legal and political landscape, they need to act fast. In the meantime, online platforms should keep this topic in mind, carefully vet its political advertisements and consider implementing record keeping systems to help manage the effects of potential future regulation.