Our Democracy Is Not For Sale

Overview —

This paper looks at the vulnerabilities in the UK’s electoral process in the form of the lax regulation around digital political adverts. Such adverts can be bought cheaply and tightly micro-targeted at individual voters. The current fines levied against groups who over-spend on campaigns is low enough that not only do they provide no deterrence to overspending, the fines risk becoming actively “costed in” to campaigns mounted by well-funded yet unscrupulous organisations.


Peter Ryan

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The electoral process has been under scrutiny; particularly the conduct of the Vote Leave campaign during the European Union Referendum. This follows on from the breaking of electoral law at the 2015 United Kingdom general election by the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties (all of which received the maximum fine possible from the Electoral Commission). This has led to the fines being paid by the largest political parties as being treated as “a cost of doing business” in the view of the Electoral Commission.

Additionally there are allegations of attempts to influence UK elections and referendums by foreign regimes and wealthy individuals prepared to spend millions to get the result that they want.

This paper examines each of those recommendations with respect to those that apply to the Scottish Government.


― All digital campaigning materials should contain an imprint saying who is behind the campaign and who created it.

― The current fines for breaching campaign rules are too low and can be included as “the cost of business” by unscrupulous campaigners. Fines and other penalties must be increased and campaign spending must be more transparent.

― Reportable political donations must be barred to individuals and organisations based outwith the area covered by the election or referendum in question. For example, a Scottish election or referendum campaign should be funded only by individuals and organisations based in Scotland or who pay Scottish taxes.

― The powers of the Electoral Commission to ensure compliance with regulations must be increased.

― Rules around the control of spending within a defined “campaigning period” should be reviewed to consider extending the defined period or including spending outwith the period for activities taking place within it (such as pre-purchasing adverts deployed during the campaign).

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