The Observer view on the threat to British democracy | Observer editorial

Parliament’s authority is being undermined – from the misuse of voters’ data to broken promises on paired voting

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.

The Observer is the world's oldest Sunday newspaper, founded in 1791. It is published by Guardian News & Media and is editorially independent.

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%.

The Cambridge Analytica files resulted in a multi-year investigation from the UK Information Commissioner's Office, "the most important ever", according to Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner.

In an interim report, published in July 2018, the ICO announced a number of enforcement actions against a whole spectrum of political actors, including:

• A £500,000 fine against Facebook for two breaches of the Data Protection act.

• Warning letters to all 11 political parties with MPs in the House of Commons, and notices compelling them to agree to audits of their data protection practices.

• An enforcement notice for Cambridge Analytica's parent SCL Elections to compel it to deal properly with a subject access request from US Professor David Carroll, whose data it held, which has already led to a criminal prosecution for for failing to properly deal the notice.

• An enforcement notice for Canadian electoral services firm Aggregate IQ, ordering it to stop processing retained data belonging to UK citizens which was provided by Vote Leave.

• A notice of intent to take regulatory action against data broker Emma’s Diary, which sold data about new mothers to political parties that had been collected in a "concerning" fashion.

• Audits of the main credit reference companies.

• An audit of of the Cambridge University Psychometric Centre, where Alexander Kogan worked

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.

Vote Leave: the key players

Dominic Cummings

Campaign director of Vote Leave and former special adviser to Michael Gove, the 46-year-old from Durham has been described as an “optimistic Eurosceptic” by the Economist. Cummings is regarded as the leading strategist of the campaign. He is credited with creating the memorable official slogan of Vote Leave: “take back control”. 

Matthew Elliott (pictured)

Chief executive of Vote Leave, the 40-year-old political strategist from Leeds has been described by the BBC as “one of the most effective lobbyists at Westminster”. Elliott is a former chief executive of Big Brother Watch, Business for Britain and the TaxPayers’ Alliance. He is currently editor-at-large of BrexitCentral.

Stephen Parkinson

The national organiser of the ground operation for Vote Leave, Parkinson is from North Shields  and was a special adviser to Theresa May when she was home secretary. Following the EU referendum victory he rejoined her as a special adviser based in Downing Street. His current official title is political secretary to the prime minister. 

Victoria Woodcock 

Vote Leave’s operations director. Credited by Cummings with winning the referendum: he described her as “the most indispensable person in the campaign – if she’d gone under a bus, Remain would have won.” Vote Leave’s powerful ‘Voter Intention Collection System’ (Vics) software was named after her. 

Henry de Zoete 

Old Etonian digital director of Vote Leave and another senior figure from the Michael Gove camp: Zoete, 36, worked for four years as right-hand man to Gove when he was education secretary. 

Cleo Watson

Prominent member of Vote Leave and now a political adviser at 10 Downing Street. Prompted uproar during the referendum when a leaked email revealed her telling clinicians that her group needed doctors and nurses to warn that Britain’s health service was being damaged by the EU.    

Darren Grimes

Former fashion design student, 25, who ran BeLeave – the campaign group given £625,000 by Vote Leave during the final stages of the referendum. The cash was paid directly to data company AggregateIQ. The donation is currently being investigated  by the Electoral Commission. Grimes is now the deputy editor of the BrexitCentral website. 

Boris Johnson 

A figurehead of Vote Leave and member of the campaign committee that met weekly during the referendum to set its campaign strategy. The 53-year-old Old Etonian is currently foreign secretary.

Michael Gove 

Co-convener of Vote Leave’s campaign committee, the 50-year-old  is currently environment secretary.  Previously he has served as education secretary and justice secretary.

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.


Observer editorial

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