Video Credit: The Convention
Thank you for that kind introduction… It’s a great pleasure and privilege to speak to you all today. And it’s an honour to follow so many esteemed speakers.
For far too long we have taken our democracy for granted. We have been complacent, and our complacency has allowed malign forces to subvert our rules and undermine our institutions. And this is not just a British phenomenon, of course. Dark money and dirty data is a real and present threat, right across the West.
A recent report by the Atlantic Council – Democracy in the Crosshairs – included three case studies: Arron Banks’ funding of the Leave campaigns in the UK, the opaque source of the money behind the rise of the German far-right party Alternative für Deutschland; and the staggering number of donations received by Donald Trump’s campaign that fell below the $200 threshold at which donors must be identified.
Now, I know that it can sometimes feel like we’re helpless in the face of the tsunami of money and data that is smashing through our flimsy defences, and sweeping all before it. But I’m here today to tell you that we are fighting back. I’m here today to tell you that we will not go gently into that dark night. No, we are going to take a stand, and I am absolutely convinced that we can and that we will win this battle.
Our new All Party Parliamentary Group for Electoral Campaigning Transparency, which I am proud to chair, certainly doesn’t have all the answers, but the very fact that we have such a strong and influential group of vice chairs reflects the fact that parliamentarians have woken up and realised that our democracy is under threat, and that we must do something about it.
Brilliantly supported by the campaign group Fair Vote UK, our APPG includes vice-chairs from five different political parties, including Ken Clarke, Caroline Lucas, Wera Hobhouse, Owen Smith and Deidre Brock, and we are also working closely with the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society.
Our work will focus on three specific areas. First, transparency: how we make sure that citizens have access to information about both online and offline aspects of election and referendum campaigns. Second, deterrence: how we offer the Electoral Commission the tools it needs to deter and, if necessary, penalise adequately. And third, monitoring: how we ensure there is a process to review whether campaigning laws are up-to-date and can be reformed immediately when needed.
We believe these are the three key ingredients to ensuring the public feel confident that the system works. It will be for others to tackle issues such as fake news and setting spending limits; our core aim will be to guarantee that the rules that exist are enforced and processes are transparent.
Ladies and gentlemen, parliament has a portcullis as its emblem because it’s our job to safeguard the culture, institutions, systems and processes upon which our democratic society is based. I founded this APPG because I am absolutely convinced that the vast majority of MPs understand that this is our solemn duty, but that we are lacking the tools to carry it out.
I must stress that our APPG will look forward, not back. We recognise that this issue is far bigger than Brexit, and that the focus now must be to lay the ground for future elections and referenda, rather than attempt to overturn the result of the 2016 vote. Why?
Well, firstly, because any lawyer will tell you it is almost impossible to make a link between the extra money spent and the extra votes cast in favour of the Leave campaigns, secondly because there is no legal basis to re-run the referendum, and thirdly because we know that we’ll get precisely nowhere if we allow our APPG to get sucked into the vortex of the Brexit debate.
That said, we do need to learn from the past, and the APPG has been founded in a large part as a response to the appalling behaviour of the Leave campaigns. My first real understanding of the extent of the Leave campaigns’ unlawful activities date back to early 2017, when I received a tip off from a trusted source who told me that they had been informed by someone prominent in the Leave campaign that Vote Leave had been working with Be Leave in ways that contravened electoral law. Donations between campaign groups are allowed, but not if there is coordination between the two, and I was told very clearly that there had been coordination.
I wrote to the Electoral Commission and the Metropolitan Police to highlight my concerns about the relationship between Vote Leave and Be Leave, and I also detailed concerns about unreported spending and donations in kind. The Electoral Commission’s response was underwhelming, to put it mildly. They seemed to be sorely lacking in investigatory capability and legislative bite; essentially a toothless watchdog unable to adequately investigate activities taking place under their very noses.
It was only the courage and tenacity of the whistleblowers, Shahmir Sanni and Christopher Wylie, that finally blew the lid on the activities of Vote Leave and Be Leave, ultimately leading to a fine of £61,000 for Vote Leave and £20,000 for Be Leave.
Meanwhile investigations were also taking place into Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting of Facebook data, resulting in a £500,000 fine, and then there was Leave.EU – the unofficial Brexit campaign bankrolled by the insurance tycoon Arron Banks – which was found guilty of “multiple breaches of electoral law”, fined £70,000 and referred to the Metropolitan Police for suspected criminal offences.
And having written to the Electoral Commission and the Metropolitan Police about Mr Banks in April 2017 and again in June 2018, I am pleased that as of November 2017 Banks has been the subject of a National Crime Agency investigation relating to the source of the £8m he donated to the Leave campaigns.
The exposure of malpractice and the ensuing fines feel like a victory of sorts, but the reality is that they are far from being a deterrent. Indeed, Arron Banks described these paltry fines as “just the cost of doing business”.
This is because the Electoral Commission was established at a time when political campaigning centred around door knocking and leafleting. It is an analogue regulator in a digital age. Digital campaigning and online political engagement have revolutionised politics, so it is critical that the Commission is given the tools and resources it needs to make it fit for purpose in the twenty-first century.
Fair Vote was one of the first organisations to recognise the flaws in the current system, and I worked with them to put forward four key recommendations:
- First, we should look at which powers sit best with the Electoral Commission and which should sit with the police. There should also be unlimited fines for electoral offences, rather than a maximum of £20,000, which is an insufficient deterrent.
- Second, *all* political campaigns should be made to report spending online.
- Third, financial transfers from designated campaign groups during referendums must be banned.
- And fourth, we should regulate paid political digital advertising in the election period with a digital bill of rights for democracy.
Our new APPG will now conduct an inquiry with a view to publishing a green paper that will include recommendations for legislative changes and institutional reform. We will be asking a wide range of organisations to submit evidence, including the Electoral Commission, the Information Commissioner, the DCMS Select Committee, the Cabinet Office, the Electoral Reform Society, FullFact, the Institute for Statecraft and Paypal. But it is clear that our APPG will only be tackling the tip of the iceberg. There are profound questions to be answered that go well beyond the scope of our work…
In his book, On Tyranny – twenty lessons from the twentieth century, Timothy Snyder writes:
“Until recently we had convinced ourselves that the seemingly distant traumas of fascism, Nazism and communism [were] receding into irrelevance. We allowed ourselves to accept the politics of inevitability, the sense that history could move in only one direction: towards liberal democracy, and in doing so we have lowered our defences and opened the door to precisely the kinds of regimes we’d told ourselves could never return.”
And Snyder is right. We are engaged in a battle for the very soul of our democracy. Robust competition between opponents is a vital element of a healthy and pluralistic politics, but we now live in a world where the protagonists are playing to win at any cost.
A world where campaign finance rules are flouted. A world where Nigel Farage can describe Parliament Square as ‘enemy territory’, and where the Daily Mail can describe our judiciary as ‘enemies of the people’. A world where Kate Hoey can dismiss an Electoral Commission report on the malpractice of the Vote Leave campaign on the grounds that most of the people on the Commission were ‘active Remainers’.
We cannot go on like this. We must act. In my view, we must urgently build a new political culture, on the basis of three cornerstones:
- First, integrity. We have to build processes, systems and institutions that inspire trust. Hence the launch of our APPG.
- Second, we must restore faith in the facts. Michael Gove’s ‘We’ve had enough of experts’ comment was typical of our downward spiral from healthy scepticism to Orwellian doublethink. Putin and Trump have constantly muddied the waters between fact and fiction, while social media has become a playground for conspiracy theorists. The social media platforms are making eye-watering profits. We need them to step up and invest a huge amount more in fact-checking and balance. They should stop behaving like platforms, and start behaving like publishers.
- And the third cornerstone is empathy. We need to stop pitting one group against another. This is happening everywhere we look. Whether it’s Parliament versus the people, business versus workers, city versus town, young versus old, graduates versus non-graduates, north versus south or Remain versus Leave, we are dangerously polarised, and teetering on the brink of a culture war.
We need to rebuild our sense of shared citizenship, reciprocal obligations, common purpose and empathy. We must learn to see the world through the eyes of others. If we are to re-unite our deeply divided country we need actions not just words. We need leaders who unite rather than polarise, and we need reform from the bottom up, not just top down.
We need a constitutional convention leading to a new written constitution. We need to introduce a new electoral system based on proportional representation. We also need radical devolution and decentralisation of power, particularly in England.
Ladies and gentlemen, our democratic system may look relatively healthy on the outside but on the inside it is rotten to the core. We all know that the Leave campaign leaders never expected to win, never had a manifesto or a leader they could unite behind, and none of them ever really wanted the poisoned chalice of leading the country through the ensuing political and constitutional crisis.
Never again can we allow there to be such a profound disconnect between expectations, reality and accountability. Never again can we allow a game-changing democratic event to take place without the slightest thought given to how to deal with the consequences. And never again can we allow our politicians to ‘wing it’.
Politics is not a game. It’s a serious business, with real-life consequences. The British political class has always been defined by its pragmatism and agility, but for years now all we have seen is shambolic arrogance. Just think of David Davis turning up to meetings with Michel Barnier without a sheet of paper to his name. Or David Cameron whistling a merry tune having just delivered his resignation speech on the steps of Number 10. Or just think of… Boris Johnson.
We must now strain every sinew to strengthen our institutions. It’s our job to clear away the fake news, dodgy data and dirty money that’s polluting our system. It’s our job to save our precious democracy, and to safeguard it for future generations. Our most dangerous enemy is complacency. But I can assure you that we are complacent no longer. Thank you.