Election Campaign Finances: Regulation — [Ian Paisley in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:31 pm on 8th July 2021.

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Photo of Anum Qaisar-Javed Anum Qaisar-Javed Scottish National Party, Airdrie and Shotts 3:31 pm, 8th July 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Paisley. I welcome the opportunity to speak in this incredibly important debate, which was secured by Damian Collins—I think I have pronounced his constituency correctly; apologies if I have not.

Free and fair elections are one of the cornerstones of our democracy. Elections place power in the hands of the people to choose the politicians they wish to stand in this House to represent their needs and interests. However, a true democracy is not defined by the holding of elections alone. It is essential that our elections our competitive, inclusive and free from corruption and undue influence.

In this digital age, our democracy faces new challenges as our elections are increasingly fought on the battlegrounds of social media. As we continue to adapt to this new media age, so must our electoral regulations. It is vital that these regulations are updated to ensure political parties do not use the digital landscape to abuse voter data and undercut electoral finance laws.

Social media is playing an increasingly important role in modern politics. It has become the stage on which free debate and the sharing of ideas flow, and while we have all experienced the negative side of social media, it has undoubtedly made politics more accessible. I have personal and recent experience of this. In the recent Airdrie and Shotts by-election, whereby I was elected to this House, I made use of social media. I regularly created TikTok videos explaining a day in the life of a candidate-if you have not attempted a TikTok dance, Mr Paisley, I highly suggest it. The comments from viewers were positive, and many noted that these videos actually helped them engage with politics and made politics more accessible to them as voters.

However, as with all advances in technology, with each positive development comes a challenge that we must adapt to and overcome. In recent elections, we have seen political parties and sides exploiting technology to abuse voter data and undercut electoral finance laws. Electoral regulations are essential to ensuring that elections remain free and fair. However, social media has created a loophole that certain political sides have been all too happy to take advantage of.

For example, during the Brexit campaign, Vote Leave utilised data acquired from football sweepstakes to build its voter harvesting base and target voters unsuspectedly with political campaigns. It utilised these illicit tactics to boost its campaign while subverting regulations. The Tories—we can begin to see a pattern here—illegally collected the ethnicity and nationality data of 10 million voters to target them in the 2019 general election. It appears that some in the Conservative party believe that there is one rule for them and another for everyone else. However, such illegality cannot be allowed to go unchecked, and if political parties cannot be trusted to follow the rules, it is essential that we strengthen our electoral regulations to prevent them from compromising our democracy.

The Tories are also launching an attack on our democracy by scrapping the electoral checks and balances of the Electoral Commission and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which are essential to upholding the standards of our democracy. As the Tories attempt to gut the Electoral Commission, I must ask where the Labour party stands on defending our electoral democracy. By abstaining in the vote to remove the Act, it is failing to be an Opposition—to stand up to the Conservatives’ attacks on democracy and their blatant attempts to grab power while polls are in their favour.

The Tories’ attempts to weaken the checks and balances of the Electoral Commission have very real consequences for our democracy. Electoral finance laws will continue to become entirely redundant, creating a system in which the party with the biggest cheques has the greatest advantage. That will undoubtedly impact the ability of smaller parties to compete in elections and will continue to uphold Westminster’s two-party system, which is becoming increasingly less reflective of the range of political beliefs held by the electorate.

This attack on our electoral system is just the latest of the Tory Government’s sustained attempts to chip away at our democracy. In recent years we have seen this Government attack the judiciary, disregard parliamentary convention and even attempt to suspend our democracy completely through the unlawful Prorogation of Parliament. Just this week we have seen the Third Reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is nothing less than an attempt by this Government to clamp down on the democratic right to protest. It is no surprise that they are going after the institutions that hold them accountable: they do not want to strengthen our Electoral Commission, because the commission’s weaknesses allows them to benefit. It is not democracy that matters to this Government: it is the ability to use their money and influence to gain power that is of most importance.

For centuries, the United Kingdom has regarded itself as a leader of democracy—an example for nations around the world to follow. I say, as someone whose ancestors were part of the British empire, that there has been this regard for the UK as a leader of democracy. However, under this Government there have been continuous attempts to chip away at that democratic system, moving power from the ballot to the wallet. It is vital that we stand up against this attack on our democracy and reject any attempts to weaken the power of the Electoral Commission. Instead, we should seek to extend its powers to ensure that the cornerstone of our democracy is protected from any attempt by the Government to utilise technology and finances to improve their outcomes in future elections.