Cheryl Gillan and Seema Malhotra: We must act now to safeguard our electoral processes
The government must update the rules governing our referendums – not wait for the next campaign, write Cheryl Gillan and Seema Malhotra
The UK’s current legislation regulating the conduct of referendums – the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) – was introduced nearly two decades ago. Since then, the world has changed significantly; technological innovations have led to new ways of campaigning and communicating. But our electoral law is yet to be updated to reflect this.
Increasingly, campaigning has moved online. During the most recent referendums, in 2014 and 2016, a significant part of the battle was fought on social media. This has created new challenges to the regulation of referendums and urgently needs addressing.
Following the 2016 referendum, stories of Russian interference through the of use of automated social media ‘bots’, and accusations of the misuse of personal data to target voters with highly tailored campaign messages have undermined confidence in the integrity of all our electoral procedures. Such concerns are not unique to the UK. During the recent Irish referendum on abortion, evidence was found that anti-abortion groups outside Ireland were paying for Facebook advertising targeting Irish voters. Regulators currently have few powers to stop this.
Gaps in our existing regulation mean that many of the rules designed to promote transparency and openness offline do not apply online, undermining the very principles on which our electoral law is based. Imprint laws, which legally require campaigners to label printed materials with their name and address to allow voters to identify the source, don’t apply to online materials. Failure to comply has legal consequences for the candidate and the agent so has a personal responsibility attached to it which is not the case with online campaigning in a referendum. As they are at present, spending returns make it difficult to identify how campaigns are spending money to target voters with online messages or, in some cases, who is financing the activity.
For the past nine months, the Independent Commission on Referendums, established by UCL Constitution Unit, of which we are both members, has been considering how we can update the UK’s regulatory framework to respond to the challenges of a modern world. Above all, the need for action by government and parliament has become plainly apparent.
The Commission’s report makes a range of recommendations, covering all aspects of the role and conduct of referendums in the UK. In relation to digital campaigning, many of its recommendations accord closely with proposals made recently by the Electoral Commission. It calls for PPERA to be amended and updated so that it is fit for the modern age: extending imprint rules to online communications and reviewing spending return categories to improve transparency of online spending. It also calls for the creation of a repository of online ads to promote transparency and allow proper scrutiny of the claims that campaigners are making.
Finally, noting the variation in restrictions on paid political advertising across print, broadcast and online, it recommends a first principles review of the regulation of political advertising across all forms of media. Such an inquiry should examine the unique nature of each and to consider whether the current disparities in regulation remain justified.
We welcome recent efforts by social media companies to address some of the problems that have emerged, but ultimately internet companies cannot always be relied upon to do what is best for society as a whole. It should be for the domestic democratic process of policy-making, not for powerful multinational companies, to set the rules.
The government is beginning to make progress on these issues, introducing the Digital Charter and committing to consult on online imprints, but there is still much more to be done. Previously, the government has said it will wait until the next referendum to update the rules. But this creates the risk that important and necessary improvements to electoral law will be politicised, wrapped up in debate about that particular referendum. We must act now to safeguard our electoral processes and ensure that the rules governing the conduct of campaigns are fit for the 21st century.
Cheryl Gillan is Conservative MP for Chesham and Amersham and Seema Malhotra is Labour MP for Feltham and Heston. They are both members of the Independent Commission on Referendums