Shadowy groups face ‘no risk’ for breaking UK election law, experts tell MPs
The UK’s outdated election laws are vulnerable to abuse by third-party campaigning groups with no paper trail, a parliamentary inquiry heard
The UK’s election laws are too outdated and weak to prevent secretive political campaign groups from breaking them, experts and journalists warned MPs at an inquiry into election regulation.
Third-party campaign groups could be a “potential conduit for anonymous donations and even foreign money”, openDemocracy investigations editor Peter Geoghegan told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
He added that a lack of regulation in dealing with third-party campaign groups posed a threat to democracy: “Dark money risks undermining the integrity of the electoral process at a time when surveys are showing us that there is growing discontent with democracy in the Western world.”
Geoghegan was asked to give evidence to the committee on a panel alongside Jess Garland, a policy director at the Electoral Reform Society, and Lord Hodgson, the author of a 2016 government review of third-party campaigning.
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The current inquiry, which was launched by the House of Commons committee in September 2020, is examining the effectiveness of the Electoral Commission, the UK’s election regulator.
Garland told the committee that third-party campaign groups create “specific challenges” for the Electoral Commission. These groups face “no risk” for breaking election law because the watchdog does not receive enough information about them, and they can be given only small fines for wrongdoing, she said.
Third-party campaign groups are classed as individuals or organisations that campaign in the run-up to elections but do not stand as political parties or candidates. Many of these groups do not declare the source of their funding.
There has been a sharp rise in online campaigning by third-party groups. The number of these groups has tripled since 2010 and they spent a combined total of £2.7m in Facebook adverts at the 2019 general election.
We have analogue election laws for a digital age
The panellists raised concerns that lawmakers have failed to keep up with the pace of technological change. “We have analogue election laws for a digital age,” Geoghegan told the committee, pointing out that the UK’s election laws were last updated in 2000.
Garland said that having third-party campaigners involved in politics is “not a bad thing in itself” but that the law is leaving the system vulnerable to abuse by groups with no paper trail.
“What we are seeing is a change from campaign groups that are household names, where it is very clear what they campaign for, who campaign all year round – and if you don't know about them already you can go to their website – to organisations that appear from nowhere at the start of an election, spend a huge amount of money and then disappear afterwards,” said Garland.
“There is no reputational risk if you only exist for an election, you don't have to worry what people will think of you afterwards if you break the rules and there is very little financial risk because the fines that the Electoral Commission can raise are so small compared to the amounts of money being spent. With no reputational risk or financial risk, the reasons for not breaking rules seem to me to be very small,” she added.
Earlier this year, openDemocracy revealed that several pro-Tory campaign groups spent more than £700,000 ahead of the 2019 general election without declaring a single donation, only to disappear months later.
There is very little financial risk because the fines that the Electoral Commission can raise are so small
Geoghegan said that online advertising was allowing these groups “to leverage up even if you don't have members, even if you don't have activism”. He added that, according to academic research, “the public are more likely to identify messages from third-party campaigners as independent and impartial even if they are giving the exact same message as a political party”.
A report by the government’s independent ethics body published earlier this month found that loopholes in election law could enable secretive groups to act as “a route for foreign money to influence UK elections”.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life warned that “no transparency” is required when these groups, so-called ‘unincorporated associations’, donate to individual MPs. It added that the people funding them “are not required to be permissible donors”.
openDemocracy recently revealed that British political parties have reported donations worth £12.9m through unincorporated associations in the past five years. £4.1m of this has been declared since Boris Johnson became prime minister in July 2019, with the majority going to his party.
The report was published just weeks after the government announced an elections bill that would give it greater control over the Electoral Commission and limit its ability to launch prosecutions.
Garland told the committee that the elections watchdog “does not have the right powers at the moment”. “If we are really serious about having strong electoral rules and making sure that people aren't breaking them then having a strong and independent Electoral Commission is absolutely essential for that,” she said.
Lord Hodgson, whose recommendations to tighten regulation of third party campaigning in 2016 have not been implemented, said that “we need an electoral commission that is prepared to speak truth to power”.
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