Expose the Hidden Persuaders

Although I had to table my Question in the Lords weeks ago it could not have been more topical, with the former boss of Cambridge Analytica  interrogated by the Commons Select Committee the day before, and the eminence grise of the Leave campaign summoned that very afternoon to appear before MPs.


The subject of my question ?   The way in which on-line propagandists can hide their identity – and their paymasters – in general election and referendum campaigns.


It went like this:  “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure online materials, including that in social media, of a political or campaigning nature carries appropriate imprints to inform recipients of its promoter.”


The Minister, my old sparring partner Lord Young, replied very cautiously, announcing a consultation “this summer”.   So I followed up with a reminder that the Electoral Commission had recommended this reform as long ago as 2003, since when we have had four general elections and a referendum, and “the secret influence of the hidden persuaders has been ever increasing.”


I could have added that there could be another general election, or another referendum, within a matter of months.


I urged him to commit to urgent action rather than yet more consultation.  He responded by pointing out that the Commission had further recommended consideration of the best way to introduce these requirements after they were piloted in the Scottish referendum ….. but failed to remind us all that took place four years previously, and nothing had been done since!


My colleague (Lord) Chris Rennard did the sums:  “In the 2017 general election, the Conservative Party spent more than £2 million on Facebook advertising.  If targeted at 100 marginal constituencies, it would mean an expenditure of more then £20,000 per constituency – yet only a few hundred pounds ever appeared in the constituency election returns.”   He pressed the need to restore the level playing field, as Gladstone’s Government did in the 1880s, “so that thousands of votes count for far more than thousands of pounds.”

The outrageous delays in implementing this simple reform may well have something to do with the extent to which the Conservatives may have themselves employed anonymous messages in the social media.


However, the Government does seem to have woken up to the dangers of this lack of transparency, after the referendum experience.  I was also encouraged that the Minister referred to a statement from his Party, which I have repeatedly drawn to his attention:  “There is a broad consensus that election law is fragmented, confused and unclear, with two sets of legislation and poor guidance from the Electoral Commission”.


Although he constantly asserts that the Government cannot make Parliamentary time (because of Brexit) for even the most urgent electoral law reform – and that this particular change could be made by statutory instrument – I urged him that to “think now in terms of primary legislation, so that we can have proper scrutiny in both Houses.”  If the Government could not provide the time, I offered the opportunity of my own Private Member’s Bill !


At the end of these exchanges Conservative Peer Lady Wheatcroft drew attention to the “propaganda from Russia [which] flooded in from Russia during the EU referendum”, and asked the Minister how he proposed to put an imprint on that.


Lord Young replied “That is a challenging question which will be addressed in the forthcoming consultation”, to much merriment.


Watch this space !


The full Hansard report is here }

1 comment to Expose the Hidden Persuaders

  • kate

    Thank you. Please fight on to stop our electoral system (screwed as it is by FPTP) becoming a battlefield for big money … which means endless Tory governments

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