As parliament breaks for recess this week, our political system has perhaps never felt less up to the gargantuan task of paving a way out of the Brexit-related stalemate the country finds itself in. Just months before the article 50 deadline, the government’s negotiating position remains utterly opaque. And revelations of recent months – many first reported in the Observer – have shed light on how the conduct of the Brexit referendum campaign calls into question the robustness of our democratic norms.
Last week, the Electoral Commission found that Vote Leave – the official leave campaign – broke the law. Its investigation followed Carole Cadwalladr’s reporting in the Observer, which revealed that Vote Leave channelled hundreds of thousands of pounds through two smaller, connected campaign groups to get round spending limits. The commission has now found that Vote Leave exceeded the £7m limit by almost £500,000 and has fined it £61,000 and reported David Halsall, Vote Leave’s registered “responsible person”, to the police. Vote Leave was not the only leave campaign to cheat: last month, the commission found that Leave.EU, the campaign associated with Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks, breached multiple counts of electoral law, including exceeding its own spending limit by at least 10%.
Separately, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) two weeks ago announced that it is fining Facebook £500,000 – the maximum available to it – for major data breaches. Its continuing investigation into the use of data in elections, described by Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, as the most important inquiry it has undertaken, also came about as a result of Cadwalladr’s reporting, which revealed that Cambridge Analytica used data harvested from millions of Facebook profiles to try to influence voter behaviour. The ICO has also raised concerns about the purchase and handling of personal data by political parties: it found evidence of the use of software that could predict the ethnicity of voters and of parties acquiring data from problematic sources and has sent warning letters to all 11 parties that had a presence in the House of Commons when its investigation began. It also established that Vote Leave gave the Canadian company AggregateIQ access to the personal data of UK voters.
The findings from these two regulators are of the utmost seriousness and concern two very serious risks to our democracy. The first is old-fashioned cheating: for centuries, British electoral law has relied heavily on a mix of honour and a fear of the consequences to keep cheating at bay. The conduct of the two Leave campaigns shows the extent to which this is breaking down. In particular, the Vote Leave campaign, which repeatedly refused to co-operate with the Electoral Commission during the course of the investigation, was overseen by a committee that was co-convened by a cabinet minister, Michael Gove, and which had several other senior Conservatives on it, including Boris Johnson and Liam Fox. Extraordinarily, although it’s unclear what they knew, it seems they will face absolutely no consequences for overseeing a campaign that broke the law. Meanwhile, the whistleblower Shahmir Sanni was outed to his family in a Number 10 press release with the effect of discrediting Sanni’s now-vindicated account. Stephen Parkinson, one of Theresa May’s senior advisers and the former national organiser for Vote Leave, who was responsible for this, also looks unlikely to face any consequences for his actions.
There are other signs that the political honour code is being eroded. Last week, it emerged that the government’s chief whip instructed MPs to break their pairing arrangements, in which members who cannot vote because they are sick or on maternity leave are paired with an MP from another party who also does not vote. Esther McVey was recently forced to apologise for breaking the ministerial code by misleading parliament after completely misrepresenting the National Audit Office’s damning verdict on her department’s implementation of universal credit. We should fear the consequences: the expenses scandal at Westminster shows the extent to which rotten cultures can seep into institutions containing mainly well-intentioned people once rule-breaking becomes normalised.
The second big risk is the lack of willingness to invest the necessary time and resources in ensuring the way our democracy is regulated keeps pace with changes in modern campaigning. Regardless of whether microtargeting voters through their social media accounts, using their personal data, is effective in changing minds, it threatens free and fair elections. Because microtargeted political advertising is no longer visible to everyone, it undermines transparency, making it easier for political parties to cover up spending they may not wish to declare. And it risks moving us further away from the democracy of the public forum, towards a more fractured democracy in which swing voters are targeted on narrow issues, using false claims that are not subjected to the scrutiny of a public manifesto.
As our politicians struggle to interpret the outcome of a referendum that failed to deliver a clear mandate in terms of Brexit trade-offs, we have never been in such desperate need of our historically strong democratic norms. But they are coming under increasingly threat. There is a risk we will one day look back on this moment as the time when cheating in the conduct of British politics started to be seen as the norm.