Arron Banks and Nigel Farage. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA
Last month I asked Carole Cadwalladr a question. “Do we have an agreed figure for how much Arron Banks claims to have spent on Brexit?”. She thought about it. And then she agreed that we don’t.
Now that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has indicated his party will support another Brexit referendum, this ongoing mystery should worry us enormously.
Most journalists say Banks spent £8 million: already the biggest known gift in British political history. But I’ve gone through all of the various donations and documents uncovered over two years of our collective investigations into “the man who bought Brexit”, and it adds up to £15m. Is that the real total? It’s not totally clear.
However much it is, the National Crime Agency is now investigating Banks, on suspicions that a “number of criminal offences may have been committed”, and that there are reasonable grounds to suspect Banks was “not the true source” of the cash. Who is? We still don’t know.
We don’t know what Cambridge Analytica’s chief executive meant when he said, knowingly, “we don’t talk about” Brexit whilst bragging about a string of campaigns his mercenary propaganda spin off company ran. Or how many companies like Cambridge Analytica are now in the business of ‘election stealing’ – through running secretive voter suppression operations, setting up fake grassroots campaign groups and targeting voters online with misinformation.
We also don’t know who’s currently pasting adverts pushing a no-deal Brexit all over Facebook. And we don’t know who all the donors backing a People’s Vote are, either.
We do know, thanks to Carole Cadwalladr, a whole load more about how data is driving modern propaganda. And we know that both Leave.EU and Vote Leave broke the law – the Electoral Commission has confirmed that. And that they were fined, respectively, £61,000 and £70,000: piffling percentages of the totals they spent.
We know, too, as Leave voters often point out to me, that the bad behaviour ran both ways: while there’s no evidence Remain broke the law, Cameron’s government spent £9.3m on those awful brochures making their flavour-free case for Remain.
Of course, Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement doesn’t mean a second referendum will happen. But it does make it substantially more likely. And if such a vote goes ahead, it must not be a rerun of the last. We can’t allow the result to be shaped by dark money, secretive firms and offshore interests – or, for that matter, insipid government propaganda.
We can’t allow the result to be shaped by dark money, secretive firms and offshore interests – or, for that matter, insipid government propaganda.
Britain’s electoral rules need a serious overhaul. The 2000 Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act was written before MySpace and Bebo were launched, when Channel 4’s Big Brother was the new thing and we were all obsessed with hanging chads. But getting such laws right will require time: time to consult and to think and to close loopholes and to persuade MPs. And time is the one thing the Brexit process doesn’t have.
So if there is another referendum, there are three things that need to happen right away.
1. Let the fines match the crimes
First, the government should increase the maximum fine the Electoral Commission can issue. It’s currently a paltry £20,000: less than you can be charged for ticket touting or for claiming more from the complex social security system than you’re entitled to. The Information Commissioner, on the other hand, can fine up to £500,000. One quick swipe of the parliamentary pen could alter this discrepancy, and keep future referendum campaigners firmly on their toes.
2. Fund the policing our politics – properly
The Electoral Commission urgently needs far greater resources. I’ve often been frustrated by its failure to investigate various indiscrepancies, but in all honesty, they’ve been inundated: a string of votes across the UK in recent years and a collection of scandals from the Tory overspend in 2015 onwards. Of course, the government will resist giving the Electoral Commission the resource they need to police money in our politics properly. But if there’s to be a further vote, we must demand it.
3. Pay for journalism
Finally, we need proper funding for investigative journalism. The long-term collapse of newspaper revenues means their teams are shrinking, squeezing out the deep, forensic reporting that can require months for just one story. If we want serious journalism, we’re going to have to pay for it.
Fortunately, more and more people are realising this – and this shift is what is making our own work at openDemocracy possible. It’s allowed us to investigate the dark money and data involved in the last referendum, and to get deep into the question of who’s shaping our politics now. Our reporting has helped to trigger law change and criminal investigations, and has fed into multiple lawmaker inquiries. But we need ongoing support from readers to keep going, and to build a stronger network of investigative journalists working on these issues.
Whether or not there is a referendum on the final Brexit deal, this work will continue to be vital. Millions of pounds are being funnelled into our politics to not only to shape the outcome of Brexit – but to influence what we see, hear and think in myriad ways. We need to keep tracking where it’s coming from, what it’s buying, and to make a forceful case for greater transparency.
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Update, 24 September 2019: The National Crime Agency has found no evidence that Arron Banks, Elizabeth Bilney, Better for the Country Ltd or Leave.EU committed a crime under electoral or company law. Its investigation related to a referral from the Electoral Commission on 1 November 2018. For more information see the NCA statement here.