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…