Earlier this year, the Constitution Unit established an Independent Commission on Referendums to review the role of referendums in British democracy – whose work will be discussed at a public seminar next week. In this blogpost, Alan Renwick and Jess Sargeant examine some of the difficult questions the commission will have to consider. Their focus is on the way in which political campaigning has changed since 2000, when the current legislation regulating referendums was enacted.
The UK’s current legislation regulating the conduct of referendums – the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) 2000 – was designed and introduced almost two decades ago. Since then, technological innovations have led to new ways of campaigning and communicating. These changes create new challenges for referendums regulation. While most of these challenges are not unique to referendums – they apply equally to elections – one key task of the Independent Commission on Referendums is to assess how well the existing rules work in the context of new digital developments and to consider solutions to some of the problems posed by the modern world. This blog post explores just some of those challenges.
Financial regulation doesn’t reflect the modern world
Increasingly, political campaigners are using social media to communicate with voters. We know this because we can observe political adverts on Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram during elections and referendum campaigns. However, we have very little information about how much money they are spending to do so. This is because financial regulation of political campaigns, first designed in 2000, has yet to be updated to reflect the nature of campaigning in the modern world.
Registered referendum campaign groups are required to submit returns of referendum expenses. The purpose of these transparency requirements is to allow campaign spending to be scrutinised by both the Electoral Commission and the public. Financial transparency requirements apply equally to expenses incurred for online and for offline campaigning. However, how this is reported makes scrutiny of online spending difficult. There is no separate category for spending on social media: such spending is reported as either ‘advertising’ or ‘unsolicited material sent to voters’. Furthermore, within this category it is only identifiable if spent directly with the platform, such as Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. Spending through agencies remains opaque, with no breakdown of how money is used. In this area, it could be argued that transparency requirements are rendered meaningless.
In the last of our series of posts adapted from presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conferenceTony Wright reflects on 20 years of parliamentary change and reform. He argues that parliament has become a good deal better over the past two decades, and points to Unit research as making a major contribution to bringing this about.
I am struck by the fact that if you want to campaign for office in the United States, you have to campaign against Washington. Every candidate has to be going to Washington to sort them out, to break the Washington consensus. What I notice is that this has now started to happen here. Everybody campaigning for office here seems to have to attack Westminster, or the ‘Westminster elite’. This was standard fare in Nicola Sturgeon and Nick Clegg’s general election speeches, and in the Labour leadership contest. Now this is an interesting development, and it is certainly different from twenty years ago. Even at this event today, we have been encouraged by Vernon Bogdanor to organise our thoughts around the idea that parliamentary sovereignty is a busted flush, and the serious ways that power has been cut into pieces. I would actually put a more positive spin on it, and say that there has been accountability explosion over the last twenty years. If you think back about the accountability environment then, and what it is now, we are in a different world. In that respect there is much to put in the positive ledger.
But the problem is where does parliament fit in to that changed environment? The health of our representative institutions is something that matters and getting the right relationship between the old forms of representative democracy and the new forms that we might want to develop is where the challenge comes. The mistake we make is how we think we can embrace new forms, and simply forget about these old institutional bits, when the health of our representative institutions actually matters profoundly. And in some respects – and this is why I react against this Westminster elite trope – parliament has got a good deal better over these last 20 years.
In 1999 The Constitution Unit produced a book which set out to forecast what the UK’s constitution would look like in ten years’ time. Sixteen years on, Charlie Jeffery tests the predictions and uses them to assess the direction of devolution in the UK today.
Constitutional Futures: A History of the Next Ten Years, a book edited by Robert Hazell, was published in 1999. It set out to predict how events would unfold following the initial stages of Labour’s constitutional reform programme. The question is, how fares that history sixteen years on? On page seven of the book there is a table which outlines ‘mini’ and ‘maxi’ versions of constitutional change, which I will draw on in order to assess where we stand now with respect to devolution.
Turning first to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the mini version predicts that the devolved institutions will stay as they were founded. The maxi option is a move towards legislative and tax raising powers everywhere and the possibility of an independent Scotland. We are headed towards the maxi version in Scotland certainly, in Wales increasingly and in Northern Ireland less so.
Date and Time: Wednesday 10 October, 1.00pm Venue: Council Room, The Constitution Unit
The Politics of Coalition is authored by the Constitution Unit’s Prof Hazell and Dr Yong and was published in June. It is the tale of two parties struggling to maintain the first coalition government at Westminster for over 60 years, and asks what the major challenges were in the first 15 months, and how have they were managed.
With the authorisation of Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, Robert Hazell and Ben Yong interviewed over 140 ministers, MPs, Lords, civil servants, party officials and interest groups about the coalition and what impact two-party government has had upon Westminster and Whitehall.
The Politics of Coalition tells how the Coalition has fared in the different arenas of the British political system: at the Centre; within the Departments; in Parliament; in the parties outside Parliament, and in the media.
As the coalition approaches the half-way point of its five-year term, Hazell and Yong will discuss how the findings of the book are likely to play out.