An important sign that a democracy is less than healthy must surely be when people cease to follow the rules which sustain it. Today has revealed yet more evidence that the Leave campaigns in the 2016 UK referendum broke electoral law. It is crucial to democratic elections that they observe the law, that there is no undue influence exerted at any stage, and that money is correctly spent. The risk in today’s febrile climate is that if the law has been broken, especially as in this case where the result was so narrow, people will start to question the legitimacy of the result. Thus faith in the system can be undermined and in a very severe crisis resort be made to further illicit activity.
In the case of the UK referendum, the evidence is that spending limits were breached by using other organisations that were ostensibly independent but actually linked. Additionally, the internet was used to mine data from Facebook in order to target people with political advertising on a mass scale. This latter activity also happened in the US general election. Moreover large sums were donated to the Leave campaigns whose source is unclear. One major backer of one of the campaigns, Mr Arron Banks has, it is being alleged, been found to have links with certain Russian billionaires and the state. There is already evidence that Russian hackers interfered with the US campaign, and 12 Russian intelligence operatives have been indicted, the most blatant of which was the hacking of a Presidential candidate’s email account as a result of which potentially compromising data was released at a crucial juncture of the campaign. The investigative reporter Carole Cadwalladr has gone so far as to argue that the UK’s democratic soul is at stake.
Moreover, as with the lack of cooperation with the special investigator in the US, so too in the UK leading officials and Mr Banks have refused to fully cooperate with the Electoral Commission’s enquiries and not attended interviews. The Electoral Commission plainly lacks sufficient enforcement powers, its fines being very small, and it is very ill-equipped to deal with the internet age where much of modern campaigning is being conducted.
A problem that both countries are encountering is that when challenged about malpractice, the response is that the investigative bodies are alleged to be biased or in the hands of their political opponents. There’s a sense that the integrity of the system is in question, which can reinforce a lack of trust in the political process in general.
This blog has been at pains over time to point out that, with confidence in politicians and central government being low, and with the perception being widely held that government is being run by a remote and cosmopolitan “political class” and subject to the undue influence of powerful and wealthy vested interests, issues with the functioning of the democratic process can be potentially dangerous.
Politicians have so far shown little willingness to take action. This should be of grave concern given the political crisis that the UK is faced with. At the very time when the UK’s institutions need to work, to sustain popular confidence in the system’s reliability, it is shown to be dysfunctional.