By Tom Hawthorn, Head of Policy
On Wednesday the Committee for Standards in Public Life (CSPL) published its final report following a review of intimidation experienced by Parliamentary candidates at the general election in June 2017.
Following this year’s general election, many candidates and MPs also raised concerns with the Electoral Commission about intimidation they had experienced during the campaign. Our survey of general election candidates found this issue was raised unprompted by 4% of respondents.
We made several suggestions to the CSPL during their review about changes to electoral law which could play a part in helping to address these concerns. We welcome their report and we want the UK Government to give their proposals serious consideration at the earliest opportunity.
More broadly, the CSPL report recognised concerns expressed across the electoral community that electoral law is out of date in some key areas and needs to be updated and improved. This includes updating election offences and recognising the increasing role of digital and online campaign activities during elections. Our recent report on the administration of 2017 general election highlighted risks to well-run elections in future and urged the UK’s government to make further progress with implementing the Law Commissions’ important electoral law reform proposals.
Transparency of online campaigning
The Electoral Commission has long argued that electoral law needs to be updated so that the transparency and accountability requirements for printed election material are extended to online material.
These rules ensure that campaigners are accountable for spending on regulated campaign material, but they also allow voters to identify who is responsible for the material and who is trying to influence them. Currently the requirement only extends to printed election material and, while this remains important, the increasing use of online and digital activities by campaigners means that it is more important than ever that the rules should be extended to cover online material.
We first highlighted this recommendation in 2003, and we welcome the CSPL reiterating this proposal, which has become even more relevant in recent years.
Although this would be an significant improvement, we know that it’s unlikely to be sufficient on its own to address the recent concerns about online campaigns. As a proactive regulator, we are already talking to the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter to see what more can be done to improve the transparency of political advertising on their platforms. We also want to see if there are specific steps that they could take to support transparency and compliance with the UK’s political finance rules, including what they can do to help us ensure our regulatory and enforcement work relating to digital and online campaign activity is as effective as possible.
This is a fast-moving area and we know that the UK’s parliaments will also continue to look at it closely, to see how existing legislation could be amended and extended to keep our elections, candidates, and electorate safe.
Candidates’ home addresses
Through our own surveys with local council election candidates we have found that people were concerned that their home address would be printed on ballot papers. One person told us that they had previously needed to involve the police having been targeted as a result of their address being made public; another feared for their safety when a member of the public arrived at their home during the night.
There was support from local election candidates that we heard from this year for being able to choose to leave their full address off the ballot paper in future. This is already an option for candidates at elections to the UK Parliament and also for Police and Crime Commissioner elections.
It is important to find the right balance between transparency for voters about who candidates are when they are choosing how to vote and ensuring the safety of those putting themselves forward for election.
We have previously recommended that the Scottish Government should review the rules on the publication of candidates’ home addresses at local elections to find a balance between safety and transparency. Similarly, our Welsh local government report notes that the Welsh Government has suggested that it should no longer be necessary to publish local election candidates’ home addresses on ballot papers. We welcome the CSPL recommendation that the UK Government should also look at this issue for local government elections in England.
The UK’s strong tradition of free elections is an essential part of a healthy democracy, and people should be able to put themselves forward for election and campaign without fear of abuse or intimidation.