Unlock Democracy is calling for an urgent and immediate overhaul of electoral law and extended powers for the Electoral Commission, in light of allegations that Vote Leave has broken electoral law.
The campaign has raised concerns about extensive loopholes in UK electoral law, as well as the limited ability of the Electoral Commission to hand out significant fines to those who have broken electoral law. The campaign's Director Alexandra Runswick has said that the current system means that "breaking the law has become a price worth paying".
The allegation being made by whistleblower Shahmir Sanni is that there was coordination between Vote Leave and BeLeave around what would happen with a £625,000 donation made to BeLeave just days before the referendum. Coordination between campaign groups is not legal under British electoral law. If this donation wasn’t made independently, then the £625,000 should have counted towards Vote Leave’s spending total, and not that of BeLeave. Crucially, if this amount was counted as part of Vote Leave’s total, they would have broken the referendum spending limit.
Alexandra Runswick, Director of Unlock Democracy, said:
“The foundations of democracy are built on free and fair elections, and political campaign finance rules exist to create a level playing field. It has become clear over the past few years that our rules are so lax and penalties so measly that breaking the law has become a price worth paying.
“In recent memory there has been a scandal involving the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all being found guilty of breaking election spending limits, which led to no reforms to enhance protections for our democracy. For example, the Conservatives were handed a historically high fine by the Electoral Commission of just £70,000. When their total spend was £15.2 million, such a small fine is nothing more than spare change.
“For years campaigners have been calling for an overhaul of the UK's outdated electoral laws, which have fallen on the deaf ears of government. The Electoral Commission needs to be given greater investigatory powers and the ability to impose debilitating fines on those who seek to undermine democracy in the UK. If there’s no meaningful deterrent for breaking campaign finance rules, and loopholes in the law are gaping wide and gameable by those with money, then our democracy is for sale.
“Having strict rules, significant deterrents for breaking those rules, and robust accountability measures, are even more critical in referendum campaigns. Political parties can be held to public account both before, during, and after General Elections. But that public accountability is much harder to do in referendum campaigns, which see small campaign groups spring up into existence for a defined period of time. So strict rules combined with swift action when rule-breaking is suspected are essential to avoid undermining public trust in our democratic processes.
“If the government doesn’t take elections and referendums seriously, they aren’t taking our democracy seriously. There are serious questions to be asked of individuals like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson who were involved with Vote Leave. The Prime Minister must put democracy above party and urgently enact desperately needed reforms.”
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Notes to editors
In 2017 Unlock Democracy published two pamphlets, How to be a Dodgy Donor and Lobbying Through Loopholes. These explored the plethora of ways in which donors and lobbyists can exploit loopholes in UK law to hide the source of donations, and gain access and undue influence over the policy-making process.
About Unlock Democracy
Unlock Democracy is the UK’s leading campaign for democratic and constitutional reform. Owned and run by its members, Unlock Democracy is creating an inclusive movement to make politics work for everyone. In July 2017 Unlock Democracy published its report, ‘A Democratic Brexit: Avoiding Constitutional Crisis in Brexit Britain’ which looked at the implications of Brexit for parliamentary sovereignty, the devolution settlements, and the power of the people.
Contact Unlock Democracy’s Policy and Communications Officer for more information at: firstname.lastname@example.org