The simple solution to plugging loopholes in targted electoral ad spending

Elliott Haworth
Follow Elliott

In the last few years, political advertising has grown ever-more sophisticated.

Microtargeting is more accurate and reactionary, while the number of platforms one can advertise on – Snapchat for example – has proliferated.

When Labour used microtargeting at the election, it was held up as innovative, modern electioneering. When the Tories did the same, it was mendacious and intrusive. Perhaps I should stop reading the Guardian.

The privacy debate will rage on, no doubt. But while it does, we must address electoral spending laws that predate the digital age. Loopholes in outmoded legislation have been exploited. Before the next election comes around, the government needs to patch over the cracks, if only to quell accusations of foul play.

At the core of the issue is the way in which election spending is distributed – tactical misallocation, if you will. Presently, at a national level, parties can spend £30,000 for each contested constituency at a General Election, which at 650 seats is around £19.5m.

At a local level, the maximum an individual candidate can spend in the 25 days before polling day is far lower: roughly between £10,000 and £16,000, depending on variables such as number of voters and whether it is a borough or county constituency.

With social media advertising, so long as the message doesn’t mention the local candidate or local policies, it can be put on national spending books, freeing up tighter constituency budgets.

This, some argue, creates an asymmetrical market. Ads on social media are generally sold on a per-bid basis, so whichever party bids highest gets their message across, trumping opponents with fewer resources.

Fears of “buying an election” are hyperbolic, though. Realistically this has always been the case. Big parties have more candidates, more money, and subsequently, more influence.

It’s estimated about £3.2m was spent on advertising in last election, with Labour reportedly spending £500,000 in the last 48 hours alone.

In 2015, the Electoral Commission proposed that parties should record all their spending on social media, with the aim of “providing greater transparency on campaigner’s activity and providing a fuller understanding of how technology is changing traditional campaign activities”. Due to the rapid succession of events in recent years, the policy was never implemented.

Exploiting loopholes, while clever, is bad politics. The electorate needs to be able to trust politicians not to bend the rules in their favour.

But how to ameliorate the present situation? More transparency, while perhaps insightful, is unlikely to change anything in the short term. Closing loopholes sounds laudable, but it’s not practical to put constituency limits on national campaigning, for the simple fact that digital campaigns can legitimately cross geographical boundaries.

The only practical solution is to create a level playing field. Instead of trying to clamp down on how digital political advertising is used – an impossible task – we should accept it and bring it all under national spending budgets, regardless of where it is targeted.

That way there’s no discrepancy or need to exploit loopholes. Political parties can spend their digital advertising pounds how they like, without bending the rules. Technology will always outpace regulation, that’s a given. But failing to at least try and keep up with it is political self-harm.

Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

Related articles