In the ‘wild west’ of online campaigning we need the Electoral Commission more than ever

The Electoral Commission have never been more vital in its 20 year history

By Darren Hughes  inews.co.uk

Our independent elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission, has been in the crosshairs recently – and we all need to take notice.

Back in August, the chair of the Conservative Party Amanda Milling set up a showdown with the Electoral Commission, threatening to abolish the electoral regulator if it didn’t “get its house in order”. This is despite widespread support for the Commission from those who engage with it, including transparency campaigners.

Ensuring our parties don’t break the law or try and game the system is a vital check and balance in any democracy – one of the reasons the Electoral Commission is respected across the world.

Individual MPs and campaigners (as well the Remain and Leave campaigns alike) have been among those investigated in recent years, whether that’s on overspending in the 2015 general election and or the the 2016 EU referendum. Sometimes there’s no rule breach, sometimes there is: the important thing is the fact that the process is trusted and independent.

But threatening to shut down our watchdog responsible for ensuring a level playing field represents something quite dangerous: chipping away at our established democratic norms and safeguards.

There has been a consensus that we can’t go back to the dark days of the 1990s – when party funding scandals felt like a weekly phenomenon.

It was 20 years ago this month that the Electoral Commission was established – the first independent electoral regulator of its kind here in the UK. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) 2000 put into law clear rules on donations, spending and campaigning – the most significant modernisation of the system in over 100 years.

Before this, political parties weren’t even required to disclose their financial accounts, donations to political parties and campaigners were unregulated, and there was little transparency over who funded our politics.

The 1990s were plagued by party funding scandals, with parties free to rake in cash from anywhere they could. From the ‘cash for questions’ scandal to allegations of cash for law-changes, it was becoming increasingly clear that something needed to be done to regulate party politics. Who knows what scandals went unreported, when parties didn’t have to declare their donations and have them audited?

Two decades on, much has changed, and our elections face new challenges – ones we could not have imagined 20 years ago, when dial-up internet was just about reaching a third of homes.

Now much of our politics is conducted in an unregulated ‘wild west’, with online campaigning changing our elections beyond recognition. Far from kneecapping our independent elections body, we need to give it a boost for the digital age.

At the last election nearly £3m was spent on online Facebook ads from non-party campaigners. We saw pro-Green Party ads set up by Vote Leave figures apparently intended to split the left vote. Meanwhile, opaque ‘outrider’ organisations spent tens of thousands of pounds – with almost no transparency – variously decrying ‘Labour’s tax raid’ or ‘Tory tax cuts for the rich’. Since foreign donations aren’t explicitly banned in UK law – and online groups not having to say clearly who is behind their ads – we don’t really know who was influencing our election debate.

While the nature of our elections has changed, the powers of the Electoral Commission have not. Even now, electoral rules refer only to ‘printed material’ when demanding transparency in campaign literature. In 2019, millions of voters were subjected to a barrage of ads through their phone, tablet or PC with little idea of who was behind them and why.

That’s why defending our democracy and standing up for our elections watchdog is so important. Without it, the integrity of our elections is at risk.

While threats to the Electoral Commission may be simply sabre-rattling, they should be taken seriously. Make no mistake: removing this respected scrutineer would create a free for all when it comes to unscrupulous campaigning, with MPs able to mark their own homework when it comes to donations.

Handing all this over to the police is not an option: they don’t want to get tangled in constant technical election disputes, and nor should they. Turning all breaches into a criminal matter would be the worst of all worlds for what are sometimes honest mistakes.

There’s much to be done to revitalise democracy in the UK – from a fairer voting system to lower caps on election spending to level the playing field. What we cannot do is go back to the corrupting chaos of the last century.

We all need to stand up and defend our elections watchdog from these attacks. We need to know who is funding our politics, that our elections are fair, and that voters can see who is trying to influence their vote.

Twenty years ago, the Electoral Commission was given this task. Now, two decades on, it must be given the powers to get to grips with online campaigning – and stand up to attacks on democratic integrity, wherever they come from.

Darren Hughes is Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society.

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