Campaigning online has shattered the political consensus governing conduct of elections in the UK. Before online campaigning, we had elections with strictly controlled spending and rules on overseas interference. There was limited capacity to allow broadcast promotion of candidates, with bans on TV and radio advertising, helping to limit spending.
Now, in contrast, we have limitless spending between election campaigns, unlimited filmed promotion of candidates on digital platforms, and individually targeted delivery of unregulated messages by those candidates, often concealed from their opponents. In short, in contrast to our historically closely-regulated elections, we have online campaigning free-for-alls, creating enmity and animosity which has polluted our electoral space.
Exploiting online campaigning
The Conservative UK government has resisted repeated calls from independent regulators such as the Electoral Commission and Information Commissioner to respond to the online innovation in electoral campaigns. Instead, it has exploited its spending power and connections with overseas-linked donors to use online campaigning in conducting successful campaigns during the period. Populist causes have prospered thereby. The polarisation in our politics has accelerated, causing increasing threats to societal cohesion.
In contrast to the Tories, constitutional change is at the forefront of the Welsh Labour Government agenda, and is also part of UK Labour’s plans to restore confidence in our country following a successful general election. This autumn, two major voting reform bills have been presented in the Senedd, Wales’ Parliament.
The main public focus has been on the far-reaching changes to the Senedd voting system and membership numbers included in one. However, the other, less trumpeted bill offers the Senedd the chance to pursue a groundbreaking agenda, to address the transformation of elections and political campaigning that has taken place in the last decade.
Addressing the problems of online campaigning
The dryly titled Elections and Electoral Bodies (Wales) Bill offers a chink of light to allow Wales to address, for the first time, the poisoning of our elections that online campaigning has brought about. Digital political campaigning is an agenda which UK Labour needs to address urgently in office.
In Wales, responsibility for both Senedd and local government elections is devolved to the Senedd or Welsh Parliament, and laws relating to them can be introduced by the Senedd. Thus Wales can, for example, set rules in place to control spending in those elections – prescribing per annum spending limits to replace unlimited spend.
There should be lower limits for reporting donations, preventing the circumvention of current rules. There should also be ‘per seat’ caps on spending to address the blurring of the traditional ‘local’ and ‘national’ spend rules which online campaigning has brought about.
Applying principles established for money laundering regulations, there should be stricter proof of funding sources imposed on political parties. All corporate donations should come from profits reported within our democracy, not from outside it. To allow candidates to know what their opponents are saying about them online, the Welsh Government should create a public and accessible repository of online political advertisements. This measure has recently been agreed by the European Union.
Leading by example in Wales
Crucially, electoral regulators must have the power to inspect and audit the records of digital platforms, as well as those of participating political parties. This will enable independent interrogation and assessment of information to ensure that the reporting they give is accurate.
The proposed introduction of automatic voter registration in Wales, most welcome and in diametrical opposition to Tory policy, shows that it can innovate and go its own way. This sets an agenda for a Labour UK government to follow.
The Welsh Labour Government should now use the opportunity of its constitutional reform bills to address, within Wales, the corruption of our electoral system introduced by unregulated online campaigning, which has had such a devastating impact on our society. It can thereby set a future course for the UK as a whole.