‘Dark money’ is threat to integrity of UK elections, say leading academics

Carole Cadwalladr in The Guardian:

Privately, the commission admitted that the only penalties it was allowed to impose by law offered no deterrent to political parties, particularly in a one-off referendum. In addition, the LSE found that loopholes in electoral law mean that spending by political parties during the referendum was almost entirely unregulated or even recorded. The real cost of the campaign – building databases to target voters via social media – occurred almost entirely outside the period regulated by law.

Tambini said: “We don’t have a system that is working any more. In this country, we have had laws to control spending by political campaigns but online campaigning has changed everything and none of the existing laws cover it. The ability to throw around large amounts of cash is almost completely uncontrolled. The key costs in campaigning – building the databases – is happening during the period when campaign spending is not regulated at all.

“There is a real danger that public trust in the democratic process will be lost. There is real potential for foreign influence. We have now the ability to manipulate public opinion on a level we have never seen before. And the current framework is weak and helpless.”

The Electoral Commission has not yet made any public statement but privately it said: “We did have this environment that guaranteed a level playing field. But with the shift online that has all changed. We won’t be able to limit the power of money in elections, that’s what we’re very concerned about.”

Tambini said: “It is urgent. There could be a wholesale loss of trust in the process as the result of a scandal or swinging of an election. Though some would argue that has already happened. There has to be a principle of transparency. The public needs to know where the money is coming from. And we don’t.”

Martin Moore, director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power, at King’s College London, said the machinery of campaigning had changed so rapidly, the law has had no chance to catch up. “The first election where digital made a difference was in 2008. And now it’s where pretty much all the spending is. It has been a shift that has happened in less than 10 years. What we’re seeing is exactly the same sort of disruption that we’ve seen in news and music and other industries.

“That is exactly what is happening in politics. The problem is that if you disrupt politics, you are also disrupting the democratic process and you are creating a very dangerous or volatile situation.”

In addition, the Electoral Commission said privately that it did not have the resources to monitor campaigns in real time. “It’s just not practical. There is some proactive stuff that we can do but we simply don’t have the resources.” The only action it can take is once the campaign is over and then the only penalties are fines which “campaigns can simply cost into their spends”.

My emphasis.  This is serious stuff.  Why isn’t the Electoral Commission leading, publicly?

Carole Cadwalladr does a good job of listing questions which need answers fast.  And by fast, remember the next UK general election is in 2020 at the latest.