The government’s electoral reform agenda: an assessment

alan.jfif (1)The Johnson government is committed to maintaining the core element of the electoral system – First Past the Post. But it has indicated its intention to pursue a range of other reforms. In this post, Alan Renwick assesses its agenda. Most urgent is the need to update campaign rules to reflect the digital age – but the strength of the government’s will to act here remains unclear, and recent steps that could undermine media independence are worrying. Other proposals are mixed, but some have the potential to strengthen the system.

Boris Johnson’s government has indicated plans to reform four aspects of the electoral system: (1) who can vote; (2) the process of voting; (3) how constituency boundaries are set; and (4) the campaign rules. This agenda excludes the core of the system: the principle of First Past the Post. But that is unsurprising: as I examined in a book published in 2011, political parties rarely change the electoral rules that empower them; there is no reason to expect an exception in current circumstances.

This post examines each of the four areas of proposed action. The third and fourth areas deserve most attention: valuable reform of boundary setting is possible; and strengthened rules around digital campaigning are urgently needed. Whether the government will focus on what matters remains to be seen.

Who can vote

The Conservative manifesto said two things about the franchise: the voting age will not be reduced to 16, as has happened for local and devolved elections in Scotland and Wales, and as Labour promised in its manifesto; but voting rights will be extended to all British citizens living abroad, eliminating the current 15-year limit.

I have set out the case for votes at 16 in a previous post, and will not rehearse the arguments here. Enfranchising expats, meanwhile, is unlikely to cause much controversy. Yet it appears to be a relatively low government priority: the December Queen’s Speech said merely that the relevant measures would ‘be brought forward in due course’. Commitments to so-called ‘votes for life’ appeared in the 2015 and 2017 Conservative manifestos too, but no progress followed.

The process of voting

The government wants to reform the voting process for two reasons: to improve accessibility for people with disabilities; and to tackle electoral fraud.

The first of these is uncontroversial. Though it was not mentioned in the Conservative manifesto, the December Queen’s Speech (repeating commitments in the Queen’s Speech in October) set out proposals that reflect recommendations made by the Electoral Commission last May. Continue reading

The rules of the election campaign: problems and potential solutions

alan.jfif (1)The election campaign that concluded last week was often a depressing sight for democrats, with rampant misinformation and occasional threats against institutions that try to foster better debate. In this post Alan Renwick identifies key problems and assesses four possible solutions. Given the prevailing political environment, he concludes, a concerted effort from parliamentarians, broadcasters, and others will be needed to carry the case for positive reforms forward. 

Electoral law in the UK urgently requires reform. This has been the unanimous conclusion of a slew of recent reports from respected organisations – including the Electoral Commission, Association of Electoral Administrators, and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committees in the House of Commons. Michela Palese and I also argued the case in a report earlier this year. Many aspects need attention. Some are drily technical: our complex and often opaque election rules badly need basic consolidation, simplification, and clarification. Others get to the heart of the kind of democracy we want to live in. Campaigning has been transformed by the digital communications revolution, but the rules have utterly failed to catch up.

This post focuses on campaign conduct. It begins by briefly reviewing problems during the 2019 election before focusing on four possible solutions. Finally, it considers the prospects for serious reform.

The conduct of the campaign

The shift to online campaigning continued apace. According to Facebook’s data, the three main parties’ central organisations alone spent £3.5 million on advertising on the site in the 12 months preceding the election, the great bulk of it coming during the campaign period. Each party posted thousands of separate ads, often targeted at very small numbers of voters. Local parties and other campaign groups also weighed in strongly. It will take considerable time for detailed analysis of all this material to be completed.

Misinformation was rampant throughout the campaign, from all sides. Boris Johnson’s core promise to ‘get Brexit done’ by 31 January 2020 was well known to be a gross simplification, while Conservative promises on new hospitals and extra nurses were found wanting. So were Labour’s claims that 95% of people would pay no extra tax under its plans and that the average family would save over £6,000. The Liberal Democrats were criticised most for misleading bar charts and sometimes manifestly false claims about their own electoral prospects.  Continue reading

How the new Sub-Committee on Disinformation can help strengthen democracy in the digital age

Michela.Palese (1)In April 2019 the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee established a sub-committee to continue its inquiry into disinformation and data privacy in the digital age. Michela Palese considers the motivations underlying the establishment of this sub-committee, its stated priorities, and how it can help confront the challenges and threats to our democratic processes arising from online campaigning.

Last month the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee launched a new Sub-Committee on Disinformation. Its task is to become ‘Parliament’s institutional home’ for matters concerning disinformation and data privacy; a focal point that will bring together those seeking to scrutinise and examine threats to democracy.’

The new sub-committee promises to offer an ongoing channel through which to gather evidence on disinformation and online political campaigning, and to highlight the urgent need for government, parliament, tech companies and others to take action so as to protect the integrity of our political system from online threats.

Damian Collins, chair of the DCMS committee, explained that the sub-committee was created because of:

‘concerns about the spread of disinformation and the pivotal role that social media plays. Disinformation is a growing issue for democracy and society, and robust public policy responses are needed to tackle it at source, as well as through the channels through which it is shared. We need to look principally at the responsibilities of big technology companies to act more effectively against the dissemination of disinformation, to provide more tools for their users to help them identify untrustworthy sources of information, and to provide greater transparency about who is promoting that content.’

The sub-committee follows up on the significant work conducted as part of the DCMS committee’s long-running inquiry into Disinformation and ‘Fake News’, whose final report was published in February 2019.

This inquiry ran for 18 months, held 23 oral evidence sessions, and took evidence from 73 witnesses: its final report contained a series of important conclusions and recommendations.

Among these, the report called on the government to look at how UK law should define ‘digital campaigning’ and ‘online political advertising’, and to acknowledge the role and influence of unpaid campaigns and Facebook groups both outside and during regulated campaign periods. It also advocated the creation of a code of practice around the political use of personal data, which would offer transparency about how people’s data are being collected and used, and about what messages users are being targeted with and by whom. It would also mean that political parties would have to take greater responsibility with regards to the use of personal data for political purposes, and ensure compliance with data protection and user consent legislation. Continue reading

How online quizzes could improve information during election campaigns: lessons from Germany

m.paleseOngoing Constitution Unit research is exploring how quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns can be improved. In recent years, voting advice applications have been promoted as a way of providing impartial, good-quality information on salient issues and parties’ positions thereon. Michela Palese outlines the debate on this topic and relates early thoughts from a research trip to Germany, where the state-sponsored Wahl-O-Mat was used 15.7 million times during the 2017 federal election campaign.

Since last May, Dr Alan Renwick and I have been working on a project to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns could be improved. In this context, I have been examining ‘voting advice applications’ (VAAs): online tools that aim to assist users in their voting decision.

In this post, I briefly contextualise the emergence of VAAs and consider the debate on the role of such tools in the UK. I then report initial findings from a research trip to Germany, where the Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung; hereafter BPB) develops and promotes a voting advice application – the Wahl-O-Mat – for all federal and most state elections.

The origins of voting advice applications

The first VAA, the Stemwijzer, was developed in the Netherlands in 1989. Available on paper or on a diskette, it aimed to increase secondary school students’ knowledge of the differences and similarities among parties, and to aid the formation of party political choices. VAAs became available online in the mid-1990s in Finland and the Netherlands.

VAAs have spread particularly since the early 2000s, and almost all European countries now have at least one. While they take varied forms, all VAAs present users with statements to agree or disagree with and then match these responses to the positions of political parties. Developers generally use party manifestos or prior statements as a starting point, and often engage parties directly in the development process. Continue reading

Independent costing of election programmes: lessons from the Netherlands

In May 2017, the Constitution Unit began a project seeking to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns could be improved. The independent assessment of parties’ policy proposals could be one way of providing the public with high-quality, reliable information. Michela Palese outlines the debate on this topic and reports some initial findings from a research trip to the Netherlands, where such assessment of election programmes is a well-established feature of campaigns.

The Constitution Unit, with funding from the McDougall Trust, is seeking to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns could be improved. As outlined in a previous post, we are looking at three potential approaches: directly banning false or misleading statements; promoting the availability of impartial and high-quality information; and fostering citizen deliberation. My research is currently focused on the second type. In this blog post I first outline the state of the debate on one strand of this approach – independent impact analysis of manifesto proposals – in the UK and summarise existing practice overseas. I then relate early thoughts from a research trip to the Netherlands, where an independent institute assesses the economic and financial effects of parties’ election programmes.

Manifesto budgeting in the UK

The independent assessment of electoral programmes is not a novel idea in the UK. Since 2013, the Labour Party has advocated extending the remit of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to include pre-election costing of opposition parties’ policy proposals. Labour argues this would benefit public debate by ensuring that voters were properly informed and restore public trust in politics by improving policy transparency. Some Conservatives – notably, Andrew Tyrie, the former chairman of the Treasury Select Committee – have endorsed this idea. The government, however, has rejected calls for an extension of the OBR’s remit on the grounds that that the Civil Service Code prevents it from examining opposition parties’ policies and that it should abide by the principle of political impartiality. Furthermore, Conservative MPs have argued that it is necessary to protect the credibility and independence of this relatively new institution, and that drawing the OBR into the highly politicised environment of an election would be unwise.

In evidence provided to the Treasury Select Committee in 2014, the OBR’s chair, Robert Chote,  indicated support for extending its role. In a letter to Andrew Tyrie, he said that ‘independent scrutiny of pre-election policy proposals could contribute to better policy making, to a more informed public debate, and could help facilitate coalition formation when party programmes need to be reconciled’. However, he also highlighted some issues that would need to be resolved, such as the establishment of ‘clear rules’ for parties, the availability of adequate resources, and the need for cross-party support for the change.

Both external and Treasury reviews of the OBR cautioned against expanding its role, arguing that currently the risks in terms of resources and independence could outweigh the benefits. These judgements, combined with the pressing matters surrounding Brexit, seem to have put the debate to rest for now.

Continue reading