The UK Government has published a new Elections Bill. It has some good and important things in it, particularly with regard to digital ads, and some controversial and bad ones too.
First thing to say is it contains a useful transparency measure – digital imprints. It’s good that paid digital election material will finally be labelled by law. Practically, we don’t think voters will notice the difference, as the imprint doesn’t have to be in the ad itself (it can be on the advertiser’s page), but the measure at least brings the law into line with the self-imposed practices of the big platforms.
It’s not perfect though. One potential risk of the new imprints regime is in blurring the boundary between paid and unpaid content, as those standing for election will now have to include an imprint on the organic content they post. Social media already muddies this (e.g. with tiny “sponsored” text on paid ads) to confuse their users, with the result being we frequently hear from voters who see material they think is a paid ad, when it is in fact organic content. This new measure doesn’t feel very likely to clear up this issue.
We’re also concerned about the new lower spending declaration threshold for 3rd parties, which will bring more small organisations into the the regime without getting to the real problem – who’s paying for so-called ‘dark money’ ad campaigns such as those reported here (and by us): https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/dark-money-investigations/pro-tory-campaigns-spent-over-700000-without-declaring-a-single-donation/.
Have we really taken a great step forward in campaign transparency if an organisation spending £10,001 has to register with the Electoral Commission while not having to say a word about where that money came from? At the 2019 election campaigners who used this loophole supported the Government. It’s therefore no surprise it’s been ignored in this legislation, but to be clear – the new threshold doesn’t solve a problem currently faced by British democracy.
The Bill contains other areas that concern us as democrats – namely the measures around needing ID to vote – and we support the work of other organisations opposing this measure.
Finally, the Government’s statement about the bill speaks of it being complementary to other pieces of legislation (namely the “Defending Democracy” programme, Online Safety Bill and Counter-State Threats Bills) but this is, in itself, a further problem. Britain’s electoral law and digital regulation are piecemeal to say the least and this adds yet another piece of legislation to the mix.
Political digital advertising isn’t that hard a problem to solve. You just need good, standardised transparency and some fairly simple measures to ensure fair play and responsible use. As it stands, there’s no one place where the issue will be dealt with, leaving it to fall between the gaps everywhere else. In that regard alone, a bill as ostentatiously named as “The Elections Bill” falls well short of being satisfactory, let alone actually being good for British elections.