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Sunday, April 02, 2017

Is foreign money threatening the UK's democratic processes?

With the controversy over Russian interference in the US Presidential race raging and with many more revelations expected it is only natural that we should be asking could the same thing happen here.

Well, according to a working group set up by the London School of Economics such interference is not only possible but we may not have sufficiently robust structures in place to stop it.

According to the Guardian they have warned that new technology has disrupted British politics to such an extent that current laws are unable to ensure a free and fair election or control the influence of money in politics.

They quote Damian Tambini, director of the media policy project at the LSE, who heads the group made up of leading experts in the field, as saying that new forms of online campaigning had not only changed the ways that political parties target voters, but crucially had also altered the ability of big money interests to manipulate political debate:

Its policy brief published on Saturday concludes that current laws can no longer ensure the fundamental principle of a “level playing field”, or guard against foreign influence, and that parliament urgently needs to review UK electoral law.

It comes as questions continue to be asked about spending during the referendum campaign. In an interview published in Sunday’s Observer New Review, Arron Banks, the founder of the Leave.eu campaign, says: “We were just cleverer than the regulators and the politicians. Of course we were.”

The Electoral Commission is investigating whether work that the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica may have done for Leave.eu constitutes an undeclared donation from an impermissible foreign donor. Cambridge Analytica is majority owned by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, who bankrolled Donald Trump. Filings from the White House disclosed on Friday that Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s strategy chief, was paid $125,333 by the firm last year.

Asked whether he was worried about the Electoral Commission’s investigation into Leave.eu, Banks said: “I don’t give a monkey’s about the Electoral Commission.”

Banks also claimed that Vote Leave “cheated” to get around campaign financing rules by donating money to third party campaigns. “They cheated! They gave 650 grand to a student. Come on! They absolutely, 100% cheated.”

A spokesman for Vote Leave responded: “The Electoral Commission gave us a clean bill of health.”

The Electoral Commission itself admits that the only penalties it was allowed to impose by law offered no deterrent to political parties, particularly in a one-off referendum. Whilst the LSE found that loopholes in electoral law mean that spending by political parties during the referendum was almost entirely unregulated or even recorded. They say that the real cost of the campaign, building databases to target voters via social media, occurred almost entirely outside the period regulated by law:

Tambini said: “We don’t have a system that is working any more. In this country, we have had laws to control spending by political campaigns but online campaigning has changed everything and none of the existing laws cover it. The ability to throw around large amounts of cash is almost completely uncontrolled. The key costs in campaigning – building the databases – is happening during the period when campaign spending is not regulated at all.

“There is a real danger that public trust in the democratic process will be lost. There is real potential for foreign influence. We have now the ability to manipulate public opinion on a level we have never seen before. And the current framework is weak and helpless.”

Unless the Electoral Commission is given the resources to tackle these threats and the power to impose realistic penalties and unless regulation is updated to meet changes in new technology then our democracy could face an existential crisis if it is not already in the middle of one.
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