The recent Extinction Rebellion protest was a breath of fresh air; not just because it got Britain talking about climate change for the first time in what feels like a generation, but also because it sent a very clear reminder to politicians: “some things are bigger than Brexit!”.
So, maybe now is the right time to talk about something else that’s bigger than Brexit. The fall-out from the 2016 referendum has exposed the fact that our democracy is in danger of being overwhelmed by a toxic combination of dodgy data and dirty money, and if we don’t tackle this now, then future generations will pay a heavy price.
Our political system can only function effectively if the public is confident that our democracy is being policed effectively and that the playing field is level, yet drip by drip we have seen how our legislative and regulatory frameworks are simply not fit for purpose. First Cambridge Analytica, the disgraced big data company, harvested Facebook data to sell to the highest bidder – a scandal that saw Facebook receive the maximum fine of £500,000. Then there was Leave.EU – the unofficial Brexit campaign bankrolled by Arron Banks – which was recently found guilty of “multiple breaches of electoral law“, fined £70,000 and referred to the Metropolitan Police for suspected criminal offences. In July 2018, Vote Leave – the official Brexit campaign – was fined £61,000 for co-ordinating with BeLeave, which was in turn fined £20,000. Then, in November 2018, Banks was in the headlines again, this time referred to the National Crime Agency by the Electoral Commission who were worried that a “number of criminal offences may have been committed” and had reasonable grounds to believe that that Banks was "not the true source" of an £8million donation made to Leave.EU. (Given the severity of the accusations and the high profile nature of this case it is worrying that we have heard so little from the NCA since.)
We made the Electoral Commission and the Metropolitan Police aware of some of these issues as early as January 2017, but despite our numerous letters and representations it took an astonishing amount of time for investigations to be undertaken, which in turn revealed the extent to which our institutions are struggling to fight and win this battle.
The Electoral Commission has been at the eye of this storm, and it has been refreshingly frank about its lack of clout. In July 2018 it made a bold, public call for new powers, echoing some of the recommendations by Fair Vote. These included a request for an increase in fines - currently capped at a paltry £20,000 – which Mr Banks once famously described as “the cost of doing business” – and a proposal that all digital political campaign material should clearly state who paid for it (replicating the requirement that is applied to printed materials).
This second recommendation points to the underlying challenge that we’re facing: the Electoral Commission is an analogue regulator in a digital age. Its remit was designed for an era when elections and referenda were predominantly about door-knocking and leafleting. But the social media platforms are now the key battlegrounds, and it is vitally important that the rules and institutions underpinning our democracy are urgently reformed to reflect this fundamental shift.
In an attempt to develop solutions, we are, this Wednesday, launching the All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Electoral Campaign Transparency, to explore how best to ensure that our democratic processes are protected, strengthened and future-proofed.
Our APPG is emphatically not about revoking or changing the result of the 2016 referendum (not least because there is no legal basis for doing so, even if we did wish to go down that route). No, our focus will be on ensuring that the public can be crystal clear about who is promoting and funding every one of the political campaign messages that they receive, and that the source of that funding is equally transparent and compliant with the law of the land.
Our APPG will therefore focus on three core themes. Firstly, transparency: citizens must have access to transparent information about both online and offline aspects of election campaigns. Secondly, deterrence: the Electoral Commission must have the tools needed to deter and, if necessary, to penalise. And thirdly, monitoring: we need a process to review whether campaigning laws and regulations are fit for purpose, and that they can be rapidly reformed in response to constantly evolving technology and influencing techniques.
Our work will gather evidence from a wide range of academics, politicians, organisations and companies, and we intend to use their inputs to produce a green paper outlining recommendations for how we can future-proof our system of electoral campaigning finance and data transparency.
The new technology that has revolutionised political campaigning is a double-edged sword: it brings unparalleled openness, access and engagement, but it can also be manipulated and twisted by unscrupulous individuals, organisations and parties in ways that undermine the principles of fair play and clarity that lie at the heart of our democracy.
Government ministers are simply not doing enough in response to the flaws exposed in the 2016 referendum, largely due to their fear that it will look like they are trying to de-legitimise the referendum result. But this is far bigger than Brexit – this is about the long-term credibility and viability of our politics.
The 2016 referendum highlighted just how vulnerable our electoral system is to the threat of dodgy money and dirty data, and we must now learn the lessons and drive forward the necessary reforms. We hope that all parties and stakeholders will work with our APPG, so that together we can restore trust and build a system and culture that the British people can once again be proud of.
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.