Election and referendum campaigns are letting voters down but simple measures could restore confidenceby Alan Renwick and Michela Palese / March 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
The conduct of election and referendum campaigns in the UK is letting voters down. Trust in what politicians say—and in how journalists report it—is at rock bottom. All too often, this lack of confidence is well grounded: misinformation and heavy spinning have been rampant in recent contests, most obviously the 2016 vote on Brexit.
Several recent reports—including the Cairncross Review, a Commons Culture Committee inquiry, and a collection of essays by the Electoral Reform Society—have focused on one part of the issue, namely the challenge arising from the digital revolution that has transformed political communications in the last decade. That’s important, and the proposals in these reports deserve careful attention.
But the problem is wider than that. Political communications were far from perfect long before the internet arose. We should be striving to deepen our democracy, not just to protect the democracy that we already have. Voters deserve much better.
In our new report, published last week by the UCL Constitution Unit, we examine campaign conduct around the world to draw lessons for how we could do things better here in the UK. We conduct detailed analysis of nine different strategies that have been applied—for tackling misinformation, promoting quality information, and encouraging open, respectful discussion among citizens.
There is only one strategy among these that we don’t recommend for the UK. This is the idea that a power should be created to identify false claims and stop campaigners from making them. Mechanisms for doing this operate without much controversy in New Zealand and South Australia. But their impact is limited. Almost any misleading claim can be expressed in a way that isn’t strictly false, so a ban on falsehoods would change little. There are also dangers: for example, populist campaigners could “weaponise” adverse rulings to claim victimisation by the “establishment.”
We think all of the remaining strategies deserve to be pursued in the UK. Some ought to be straightforward. For example, it is often hard to find reliable basic information on local candidates. A website could provide this, using information supplied by candidates along with their nomination papers. Some have already been tried to an extent in the UK. For example, websites in which users answer questions about their own preferences and receive guidance as to which parties are closest to them—so called “voting advice applications”—have been run by several independent groups. They have, however, been shoestring operations. Better financed versions could achieve much more.
Other strategies would be more innovative. For example, Ireland has recently blazed a new path in how to prepare for referendums, convening a group of randomly selected citizens—a “citizens’ assembly”—to meet over several weekends to learn, deliberate, and reach recommendations. The evidence is that this greatly aided the quality of information and discussion in last year’s referendum on liberalising abortion law.
Many actors could play important roles in developing these various strategies. Broadcasters could integrate fact-checking further into their coverage and explore programme formats that enable more deliberative types of discussion. NGOs and their funders could innovate with new ways of engaging marginalised voters. Academics could analyse the effects of policy proposals and make their findings accessible to regular voters.
But ultimately we think we can do better than follow a smorgasbord of measures tried elsewhere. The UK could move to the forefront of democratic innovation by pursuing a more integrated approach. We propose that an “information hub” should be established, drawing together information of many kinds from many sources. This would be designed to allow voters multiple entry points and paths through, depending on what interests them. It would be publicly funded to ensure it had the resources to fulfil its potential, and would be run by a new independent public body. Crucially, it would seek to engage voters at every stage of information development—in shaping the issues that are covered and the forms information takes, and sometimes also in generating the information itself.
The Brexit referendum served as a catalyst for thinking about how to improve the quality of political information and discussion and to strengthen our democracy. Now is the time to ensure that how we conduct election and referendum campaigns is designed with voters at its heart.
Alan Renwick and Michela Palese, UCL Constitution Unit