The UK party political case for regulating online political advertising

06th Oct 2021 | Share:

To start this post with something fancy, let’s go back to Thucydides (an ancient Greek historian). He wrote:

“It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

For what it’s worth, this is pretty much the root of realist political thought. Everything’s a power game, where marginal perceived or real advantages upset the balance and bad outcomes inevitably follow.

Political campaigns work a bit like this. Time and resources are tight. Miscalculations are common. Every move your opponent makes signals something, and if you see their move as one of strength, you have to respond.

What should this mean for political ad regulation? Or more precisely, something we think should include political ad legislation – the forthcoming UK Online Safety Bill (OSB)? We’re not going to write here about what the Bill should actually say (we’ve done that elsewhere). We’re also not going to write about the higher principles of democracy and fairness that we think should underpin political ad regulation.

Instead, we want to make the case for why every political party should be interested in getting their arms around political ad regulation. With an election on the horizon in 2023, this Bill is likely the best available vehicle for solving the problem before the vote.

Typically, the argument goes “why would anyone change the rules that benefit them?”. We’re not sure that applies in the UK at the moment. Below, we set out what we think each party has to fear from the strength of their rivals. To us, this fear should motivate them to support pragmatic political ad regulation being added to the forthcoming legislation.

The Tory case for political ad legislation:

  • Despite gains at the last election, Labour has held a significant advantage in organic, viral digital campaigning for several cycles. To counteract this, in 2015 and 2017, the Tories outspent Labour significantly on ads. 
  • By 2019, Labour had learned its lesson and was spending more than the Tories. 
  • The next Labour campaign will not be as weak as the last. A Labour Party that has a greater chance of winning will attract more resources and better people to work with those resources.
  • Labour will likely leverage skills and people from the successful Biden 2020 campaign. There is currently no US equivalent for the Tories for the Conservatives to do the same.
  • The Liberal Democrats also spent significantly in 2019, running more ads than anyone else, usually targeted at southern marginals. Your prospects in these seats aren’t as good as they were two years ago.
  • Perhaps Lynton Crosby and Topham Guerin have the golden touch? Or perhaps the streak ends?
  • Dominic Cummings is not in the building.
  • Elections are a frequent target of malign foreign influence and ads are sometimes used as part of this. If the next election is attacked by a foreign power, this will be an embarrassing failure of foreign policy. 
  • Your Online Safety Bill is supposed to make Britain the “safest place in the world to be online”, but there’s a huge gap in it where paid media should be.

The Labour case for political ad legislation:

  • The Tories want to raise the ceiling on what can be spent on election campaigning. 
  • They’re also about to reduce the ability of campaigns (usually those from the left) to work together.
  • They’re also exploring how to relax rules around the use of political data, to “drive more participation”. In short, they’re looking to buy more, better voter data.
  • They want to change the way election spending is accounted for, allowing more money to be spent in key marginals, such as the so-called “Red Wall” seats you lost in 2019.
  • Tory membership numbers are low and grassroots activity is weak, meaning they must spend money, usually on ads or other targeted campaigning, to counteract Labour’s advantages in this area.
  • Since 2019, the Tories have improved their organic content which, combined with additional targeted ad spending could put Labour at an overall disadvantage in the digital campaign.
  • At the last election, a number of hereto unknown Facebook pages, all closely affiliated with the Conservative Party, popped up during the campaign and ran significant sums of advertising on election day. All attacked Labour.
  • Also at the last election, the Tories started spending money on broadcast-style YouTube takeover ads at £150k a time, buying up all of the available inventory for two days of the campaign. How many days will they buy next time?

The Liberal Democrat, SNP, Green and smaller party case:

  • While smaller parties can use ads to campaign in marginal seats, they are far less likely to be able to afford the skills needed to use them effectively
  • With changes to the way spending will be accounted for, there’ll be more centralised funds pouring into these marginals than ever before. Your campaigns could get swamped.
  • Outside groups can spend money targeted at marginals. Even with spending limits, if they buy nothing but ads, they’re going to be buying far more than your candidate is. Your campaigns could get swamped.

At the last election, UK parties sent 15p in every pound spent on the campaign to either Facebook or Google.

So, some final questions for all parties to ask themselves:

  • Did you get value for money?
  • How much money are you willing to give the platforms next time? 25%? 50%?
  • Do you want platforms to change the rules mid-campaign (they did this in 2019 and in the US 2020 elections) or do you want a level playing field?
  • Are the platforms so unpopular that there’s some political mileage in rejecting the role that they play in elections?

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