The elections watchdog has called for far-reaching changes in election law, and the Conservative government won’t be happy. Because the new rules could shut down a tactic the Tories have depended on in the last two general elections.
‘Democracy under threat’
The Electoral Commission has spent a year looking “at how digital campaigning was used in the EU referendum and the 2017 general election”. On 26 June, it published its recommendations [pdf]. The commission’s chair, John Holmes, says:
we have seen serious allegations of misinformation, misuse of personal data, and overseas interference. Concerns that our democracy may be under threat have emerged.
The report, he says, is a:
call to action for the UK’s governments and parliaments to change the rules to make it easier for voters to know who is targeting them online…
A problem for the Conservatives
After Carole Cadwalladr’s series of explosive revelations about Cambridge Analytica and Leave.EU in the Observer, this may seem like a no-brainer. But the recommendations have serious implications for Britain’s political parties too – especially the Conservative Party.
The Conservatives have relied on digital campaigning far more heavily than any other party during recent UK elections. In 2017, the party spent £2.1m on Facebook advertising, dwarfing Labour’s £577,000 and the Liberal Democrats’ £412,000. And in 2015, it spent £1.2m compared to Labour’s £16,454.
This spending included Facebook adverts targeted at voters in key constituencies. As BuzzFeed reported on 7 June 2017:
The Conservatives have launched a barrage of targeted Facebook adverts ahead of tomorrow’s general election that make the most of a previously unnoticed loophole in electoral law to enable the party to spend a near-unlimited amount on localised messages in key target constituencies…
Many of those ads targeted people to an astonishing degree. In 2015, the Telegraph reported [paywall] that the Conservatives were able to target “small groups of undecided voters, for example women in their 40s who were concerned about schools and GP opening hours, in specific districts of key marginal seats”.
Facebook boasted, meanwhile, that it had allowed the Conservatives to reach more than 80% of Facebook users in key seats in 2015. And the Conservative Party’s digital director, Craig Elder, claimed that targeting made a “demonstrable difference” to the 2015 election result.
The new rules
As BuzzFeed pointed out, as long as the ads didn’t mention the local candidate, they could be declared as part of the party’s (massive) national spending rather than part of the local candidate’s (very restricted) spending.
count online advertising targeted at local constituencies within individual candidate spending limits – which can be as low as £10,000 – rather than as part of national campaigns which are allowed to spend up to £19.5m.
Time for action
So will the government act on the Electoral Commission’s recommendations? A Cabinet Office spokesperson was noncommittal, telling the Guardian:
The government is committed to increasing transparency in digital campaigning in order to maintain a fair and proportionate democratic process, and we will be consulting on proposals for new imprint requirements on electronic campaigning in due course.
And it’s worth remembering that the Electoral Commission has been asking for more powers for years [pdf]. And the Conservative Party, which has faced its own election fraud investigation and fine, has yet to act.
A radical overhaul
Britain has regulated candidate spending in elections since 1883 [pdf, p5], for one very good reason: to stop the wealthy buying their way into power. Democracy depends on that regulation. But the system is broken. As Arron Banks, the co-founder of Leave.EU, once said (while insisting Leave.EU didn’t break the law):
We were just cleverer than the regulators and the politicians. Of course we were.
With the current political furore over the EU referendum, however, there is a chance that the government may finally be forced to tighten up election regulation. And if we want to fix our broken democracy, it’s on all of us to make sure that happens.
– Read The Canary’s previous stories on election expenses.
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Featured image via EU2017EE Estonian Presidency/Wikimedia