Do U.K. campaign laws miss the mark on transparency?

British Prime Minister David Cameron has a fresh chance for his government to bring special interests to light. (Photo credit: Number 10/Flickr)

All eyes were on the United Kingdom last week as polls leading up to Thursday’s election predicted that Labour might take back Parliament. That night, officials announced that the Conservative party led by David Cameron managed to win a surprising — and admittedly very slim — majority.

Beyond these unanticipated results, this year’s election was markedly different for a few additional reasons. In some ways, campaign tactics mirrored American-style campaigning more than ever before, as political parties in the U.K. continue to hire campaign consultants from the U.S. and engage in micro-targeting campaign tactics. However, last week’s result also marked the end of the first full election cycle, with new rules designed to make future U.K. elections less like elections in the States.

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act (affectionately dubbed the “Gagging Bill” by its opposition) was passed last spring, amending how third-party actors, such as trade unions, could interact with campaigning. The legislation was marketed as a way to curb the influence of outside groups on electoral outcomes — in the way that PACs and super PACs do in the U.S. However, critics are skeptical of both the intentions behind the law and its likely effects. It has sparked many charities and political campaign organizations from across the spectrum to unite in opposing it.

The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act has two main elements. First, it establishes a mandatory lobbying transparency registry. It also lowers the threshold at which third-party actors who conduct political campaigns must register with the Electoral Commission in an attempt to regulate outside influence. Now, any entity that spends more than £5,000 on political campaigning in a given year is required to register, becoming subject to reporting requirements on incomes and expenditures. All of these sound like big improvements for transparency and accountability of outside influence, right?

But all is not what it seems. Many organizations, charities and trade unions have issues with this legislation as it currently stands. Although a lobbying transparency registry in theory should show who is influencing the legislative process, this new policy only requires consultants or professional lobbyists to register. By hiring in-house lobbyists or PR firms, corporations can easily circumvent this requirement and continue to operate in secrecy. And companies seem to already employ this strategy, according to a recent scandal involving a PR firm representing Phillip Morris that worked suspiciously close with the U.K. government to change cigarette packaging. This lobbying registry won’t enhance transparency of the majority of lobbying activities.

Additionally, there is no clear definition of what “political campaigning” means within this context. Even the Electoral Commission admitted that the vagueness around this term would make it difficult to enforce and likely any imposition would be challenged in court. Nonprofits and trade unions have expressed outrage that the bill, in effect, completely deters nonprofits from providing their opinions on any issue area within an election cycle or participating in campaigns. They assert that the administrative burden and legal liability of trying to work around an unclear definition of political campaigning is a great strain on their limited resources. Further, third-party campaigning actually makes up very little of overall campaigning in the U.K. In the 2010 election, third-party campaigning made up about 9 percent of total expenditures. Unfortunately, complete and accessible data on the spending and income of any campaigners is still not available; without this data, it’s still not possible to know what these figures looked like in 2015.

Transparency of political donations, be it to political parties, candidates or political nonprofits, is essential. If an outside group is participating in campaign activities, they should be reporting on donations and spending so that citizens know who is trying to influence their vote. However, vagueness around what constitutes “political campaigning” makes it difficult for groups to take steps necessary to participate in the political process at all. Perhaps with five more years in office, there is a chance for Cameron’s new government to consider amendments that bring more clarity to this transparency law — and more special interests to light.