Election campaigns are advertising and need to be regulated as such

Last week (7 May) marked one year to go before the general election. It was also the starting gun for 12 months of party political electioneering by phone, email, mail and television to prompt a largely apathetic electorate into giving a damn and swaying a very tight election one way or another. 

Russell Parsons

A dry run indicating what people can expect is due on 22 May when Britons take to the polls to elect their representatives to the European Parliament and local councils.

Both races have received more attention this year than previously. In the case of the former, coverage of the rise of UKIP and the very real possibility that Nigel Farage’s bunch of EU-hating “fruitcakes and loonies”, to borrow an old quote from David Cameron, could cause the mother of all political upsets and claim victory far outstrips engagement with the policies, positions and personalities involved.

Campaign tactics have also generated headlines. UKIP’s poster campaign was variably described as racist, fear-mongering and crass by opposition MPs. Not to mention misleading – one execution featured an unemployed builder to demonstrate how British workers are being replaced by cheap labour from Eastern Europe who it was later found to be played by an Irish actor.

Elsewhere, the Information Commissioner’s Office was forced to issue a warning to the main political parties over their marketing tactics for the European and local elections for campaigns masquerading as market research, while ostensibly ordinary residents in a Labour local council election leaflet were found to be party workers.

Such instances do little to lift the reputation of politics and politicians from the depths sunk to following the expenses scandal.

Politicians have been falling over themselves in the years since ‘expenses-gate’ to prove they are transparent. Efforts to demonstrate accountability have not, however, been extended to wider regulation of marketing tactics.

There is a vacuum in the regulation of political ads. Party political broadcasts are not considered advertising, therefore not covered by the Committee of Advertising Practice’s codes, while non-broadcast ads are exempt so do not fall under any self-regulatory remit.

They fell out of CAP’s and therefore the Advertising Standards Authority’s remit in 1997 when CAP decided the transient nature of electioneering meant there was little chance complaints could be investigated before the poll the ads were designed to influence, and were consequently ineffectual.  There was also concern over restriction of free speech.

Attempts have been to fill the hole, a 1999 report by the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended a code of practice in partnership with advertising self-regulators but has remained on the shelf, while the Electoral Commission concluded in 2003 the ASA should not be responsible but did not conclude who should be.   

The only recourse, although not insubstantial, is if ads are found to be in breach of the law (racist, for example) or if they fail to include the name of the printer or promoter on posters, leaflets etc. 

Once the European and local elections are behind us, the general election campaign will begin in earnest. The ultimate outcome is very difficult to predict. The polls are tight; the Liberal Democrat vote looks set to splinter and UKIP are providing an intriguing but unpredictable twist.

The outcome of this competitive race is more advertising and more claims made in increasingly dramatic ways. It also increases the likehood activity might be generous with the truth.

All the while, voters have to wade through the claims without the safety of knowing that somebody somewhere will make sure what they are hearing or reading is all it should be.

There is no silver bullet solution but there does need to be some independent oversight of party political advertising. Although far from perfect, the level of regulation brands are subject to pretty much ensures they stay on the right side of decency and truthfulness.

It would be a small step to engaging with a phlegmatic public worn down by politics and politicians but a step all the same.