The Brexit effect on UK political campaign rules

Brexit, like it or loathe it, allows the UK to decide which regulatory paths it takes. This works in two directions – first, the UK can set new rules that actively take it away from the EU and second, the EU can set new rules that the UK no longer has to follow.

Both have implications for political campaigning in the UK, and we’re starting to see a meaningful divergence in approaches.

The first direction – new UK rules around data protection – are found in the forthcoming Data Protection and Digital Information Act. This relaxes the rules for political campaigners looking to communicate with voters for the purposes of “democratic engagement”.

If the law passes, it will likely mean an increase in the number of unsolicited campaign communications people will receive, as parties will have less need to solicit data and permission from voters before contacting them. Essentially, it will make it easier for them to reach voters who they have previously found harder to reach. A liberalisation like this one will tend to favour political parties with more resources (because they’ll find it easier to acquire the data they need) and less on the ground strength. Relatively speaking, that’s the Conservatives (and possibly Reform).

The changes can be presented as a good thing, if they actually result in greater democratic engagement and higher turnout at elections. The practical reality is different though, as the UK electoral system doesn’t really bother itself too much with engagement of all voters, instead focusing on those already most likely to vote, living in the relatively few marginal constituencies where elections are decided.

There’s a big gap here that’s often exploited – the difference between what the democratic ideal sounds like when a law is presented and debated, and the practical reality of what campaigners actually do with the new rules. We’re yet to see much of an assessment of how these changes will affect the latter, and this law seems to be moving forward on the basis of “what the government wants” as opposed to anything resembling “what’s good for our democratic systems”.

It will become law before the election, so we’ll start to see what impact it has pretty soon. We imagine the party’s data protection lawyers have the do’s and don’ts fact sheets ready to go at a moment’s notice.

The second shift is the EU diverging from the UK. This is now happening through two new bodies of law.

The first is the Digital Services Act, which tightens rules about the use of sensitive data (including political opinions) in digital marketing. It also limits the ways in which people under 18 can be profiled and targeted (the UK’s new law sets that threshold at 14). Overall, along with the GDPR, the DSA makes it harder for political campaigners to do whatever they want.

The second law is the European Political Advertising Regulation, which includes a definition of a political ad, as well as (forthcoming) transparency specifications and a pan-EU advertising library (to sit alongside the ones created by platforms like Facebook and Google). Parts of the Regulation will be in place for this year’s EU elections, but the full implementation is going to take a couple of years.

Over time then, you can start to see what this divergence looks like, with the UK taking more of a “mid-Atlantic” position, with rules looser than those you’d find in the EU, but still significantly tighter than you’d find in the US. Proponents would say it’s a “just right” approach, but as inboxes, newsfeeds, voicemails and doormats start to fill with unsolicited political campaign materials over the coming months, many voters will disagree.