This month, draft findings of the Electoral Commission’s investigation into Vote Leave, the official pro-Brexit referendum campaign, were leaked, revealing Vote Leave of being guilty of breaking electoral law, on multiple accounts. They are expected to face the most hefty fines in the watchdog’s history. Then there was Cambridge Analytica, the disgraced big data company that was using misappropriated Facebook data to sell elections to the highest bidder and saw Facebook receive the maximum fine of £500,000. Then who could forget Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU – the unofficial Brexit campaign bankrolled by the infamous insurance tycoon Arron Banks – which was recently found guilty of “multiple breaches of electoral law”, fined £70,000 and referred to the Metropolitan Police for suspected criminal offences.
We still don’t know where Banks’s £9m donation came from, but it’s vital we understand his reasons for meeting Russian officials 11 times in the run up to the referendum, rather than just the “two or three” times he initially claimed.
Make no mistake. This stuff matters.
Yet it is all too easy for politicians to watch from the sidelines while the world carries on, oblivious. Maybe it is because the public are blissfully unaware of the severity of these behaviours that politicians have so far failed to act. As the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham recently said: “We are at a crossroads. Trust and confidence in the integrity of our democratic processes risk being disrupted because the average voter has little idea of what is going on behind the scenes.”
Most sensible people realise that this goes far beyond the Brexit campaigns. This is about ensuring we have strong, meaningful laws that can build confidence that our elections are free and fair. Can we really be confident that this is still the case?
It is for these reasons that I have spent the last 18 months trying to persuade the Electoral Commission to show some teeth on all of these cases, and where necessary, to hand over documents to the police for further investigation. But this issue spans far wider than the police or the Electoral Commission. It has become abundantly clear that the electoral system is not fit for purpose and in dire need of reform.
Take issues relating to Facebook advertising. Digital campaigning and advertising in elections has meant our electoral laws are now a long way out of date, harking back to a simpler era of door knocking and leaflets.
The Electoral Commission is very much an analogue regulator in a digital age. That’s why I have been working with Fair Vote UK to devise a reform agenda that can tackle its current vulnerabilities.
Here are five essential reforms:
First, we must transfer the Electoral Commission’s investigative and prosecutorial powers to the Police. On the occasions when there are grounds to believe electoral offences have been committed, it should be recommended that they are investigated promptly by either specialist fraud officers or specialised electoral offence officers.
Second, we must ensure fines for breaking electoral law are a severe deterrent and not simply just “the cost of doing business” by making them unlimited, scrapping the current £20,000 cap.
Third, we should increase transparency in elections by reporting campaign spending online for all to see. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority already tracks MPs’ spending. Why shouldn’t all political campaigns be held to the same standard?
Fourth, we must prevent future BeLeave-style schemes by eliminating donations in referenda from the official campaign to other groups. The Electoral Commission’s current rules in a referendum allow the designated campaign to give up to £700,000 to groups as long as they do not coordinate their work, but it is entirely unreasonable to think donations are entirely without expectation.
Finally, we must require greater transparency in digital advertising through compulsory imprints and access to targeting information in two clicks or less. In fact, we should pause all political digital advertising in the election period until we have proper regulations in the form of a Digital Bill of Rights for Democracy.
I am hosting an event on Tuesday with the Electoral Reform Society where politicians, commentators and citizens will gather in Parliament to grapple with tackling this crisis in our democracy. Has our Democracy Become a Wild West will hear from Shahmir Sanni, a BeLeave whistleblower, and several other experts in what I hope will start a process that encourages Parliament to implement the reforms I’ve laid out today.
We now find ourselves in a battle for the very soul of our democracy, and future generations will not forgive us if we fail to take a stand.