What new challenges does the changing nature of campaigning pose for referendum regulation?

me-2015-large-e1485255919145.jpg jess-sargeant-resizedEarlier 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.

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Is the alternative vote worth voting for?

This was the subject of a debate at UCL last night, where leading figures from the yes and no camps met alongside electoral experts and UCL students to argue the point.

For the yes side, Billy Bragg and Katie Ghose argued that the referendum provided an opportunity to offer greater choice to voters, to combat the sense of disenfranchisement among those who do not identify with the parties likely to win under first past the post, and to challenge MPs to target the wider population rather than swing voters.

For the no side, Jane Kennedy and Charlotte Vere called AV a timid reform, a shield for Liberal Democrat unpopularity, and a change that far from combating safe seats would just make different seats safe.

A third camp too emerged, of those who didn’t care for AV or FPTP, but wanted change of a different kind. For them different questions were important: if AV passes, will it be the start or the end of reform? Is AV a compromise worth making?

A quick poll at the end of the night indicated that the vast majority of those attending were in favour of the change to AV, but with a little under a month to go, it’s still all to play for. Last night showed how much we need this debate so, what do you think? Whether you think AV is progressive or regressive, a step towards or away from greater democracy, a political fix or a non-event, let us know…

Further information:

Domestic Judges and The European Court of Human Rights: Conflict or Consensus?

External Event

Thursday 31 March 2011 17:30 to 19:30


British Institute of International and Comparative Law, Charles Clore House, 17 Russell Square, London WC1B 5JP


  • Lord Hope of Craighead, Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court
  • Olivier Dutheillet de Lamothe, Conseiller d’Etat, France
  • Giorgio Malinverni, Justice of The European Court of Human Rights
  • Peter Paczolay, President of the Constitutional Court of Hungary

Will discuss the European-wide research on the topic presented by

  • Dr Başak Çalı, Senior Lecturer in Human Rights, University College London


The judgments of the European Court of Human Rights cannot automatically override domestic legislation or precedent. Yet domestic courts, as a matter of international legal obligation, are required to respect the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. The relationship between the two courts may be conflicting or consensual. This timely seminar will discuss the ways domestic courts and the European Court of Human Rights manage their delicate relationship, reporting for the first time the results of an ESRC-funded study on the subject.


Farewell welfare?

External event

Farewell welfare? UCL Legal and Political Theory Forum

22 March 2011, 6.30pm, Bentham Main Lecture Theatre (Faculty of Laws)

UCL Legal and Political Theory Forum provides an opportunity for distinguished academics, politicians and others working in the public policy sector to debate the philosophical issues underlying current debates in public policy. This year a panel of notable speakers will be discussing the coalition government’s proposed cuts to the welfare state: Farewell welfare? Does a fair society require a welfare state? If welfare cuts are needed, how can their fairness be ensured? Can it ever be fair for cuts to hit the poor hardest? The Forum will be chaired by Professor Albert Weale (UCL School of Public Policy), and we are pleased to announce that speakers for the event will include: Jon Cruddas MP (Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham) Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon (Birkbeck; Lib Dem Councillor for Cambridgeshire)  Dr Stuart White (Oxford University) Max Wind-Cowie (Head of the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos) Professor Jonathan Wolff (UCL)

The Forum will take place on 22nd March at 6.30-8.30pm in the Bentham Main Lecture Theatre, Bentham House (Faculty of Laws), and will be followed by a drinks reception in the School of Public Policy building, 29/30 Tavistock Square. No reservation is required, but we advise that you arrive in good time to ensure yourself a seat.

Contact us at ucl.lptforum@gmail.com

For more information visit our website http://lptforum.wordpress.com/ or Facebook event page http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=166249986759075&ref=ts