In March, Shahmir Sanni and another whistleblower who had worked inside the official Leave campaign brought forward evidence suggesting that Vote Leave had broken the law and that as a result, the Brexit referendum was tainted and our democratic processes were failing. After blowing the whistle, Sanni faced immediate attempts to discredit him culminating in Downing Street outing him despite being fully aware it would put his family in Pakistan in danger.
However, Sanni has been vindicated. This week, the Electoral Commission found that Vote Leave overspent and did indeed cheat during their campaign. In a referendum so close, that extra £675,000 could have made all the difference. The report also clearly refutes claims made by VL that they were not invited to give evidence.
They’ve handed down fines and referred the case to the police, but Vote Leave’s flagrant disregard for the law and the Electoral Commission’s limited ability to punish them for their crimes illustrates the fundamental issues with our electoral system.
Vote Leave wanted to win no matter what, including if that meant telling the public falsehoods. And during the campaign, there was little anyone could do to challenge their lies. One of the whistleblowers recounted to me that one of his abiding memories of working at Vote Leave was “of senior staffers rolling their eyes at complaints from one of their then parliamentary supporters, Dr. Sarah Wollaston.”
What was Wollaston’s protestation that so irritated Vote Leave even before they were found to have broken law? That the £350m a week promised for the NHS took no account of the fact that the vast majority of this money was returned to the UK by the EU. And as such, she believed that the campaign’s core message, later emblazoned on the side of the battle-bus they would ride to victory, not only obtained under false pretenses but by breaking the law, was grossly misleading.
On announcing her late decision to defect to Remain, Wollaston stated that “if you’re in a position where you can’t hand out a Vote Leave leaflet, you can’t be campaigning for that organisation.” And she wasn’t alone. Sam Bowman, then executive director of the right-wing Adam Smith Institute, having long intended to vote Leave, declared that “all politicians lie and all campaigns are dirty, but the Leave campaign has been an order of magnitude worse than usual. All of Leave’s key messages have been bare-faced lies that Leavers know are lies.”
Unlike parties seeking to enter office, referendum campaigns never have to govern following a vote. Their proposals must simply be believable enough to secure victory. And if the public could be convinced that a vote to Leave would land their family and core public services in a materially better position, then that is the line Vote Leave strategists thought they should take. To them, misleading the public, and even breaking the law, was a price worth paying to achieve their goal.
Almost as soon as the result was announced, Vote Leave’s promises began to show their cracks. If there were real consequences for their false promises, surely Dan Hannan MEP, a core Vote Leave spokesperson, could not have declared that “absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market.” Even after the result, Boris Johnson promised that “there will continue to be free trade, and access to the single market.” Mentions of Norway and Iceland were constantly thrown around on the TV screens; all of them are now silent.
Such brazen and knowing duplicity in the face of overwhelming evidence of cheating undermines the very fabric of democracy on a question of incalculable significance. But short of making political campaigns subject to the Advertising Standards Authority and finding ways of holding them to account, very little currently can be done.
That they broke the law should come as no surprise, given the duplicity at the heart of the campaign. But where does this leave the will of the people? Democracy based on falsehoods and criminality is not worthy of the name. You cannot further the people’s will by subverting democracy on every level. You cannot burn the village in order to save it.
When the Electoral Commission suspects wrongdoing in elections, these allegations should be promptly and thoroughly investigated by the police. The cap on fines should be lifted. Currently, fines given by the Electoral Commission are small enough that they are essentially just part of the cost of doing business. We must build a system that holds people accountable for their actions.
The 2016 vote was close. So close that in the wake of this verdict the case for a second referendum is undeniable. Really, what is the alternative to a referendum in which democratic principles are followed, and the issues surrounding Britain’s future relationship with Europe are openly and honestly discussed? This may be idealistic, but it is the only way of producing a legitimate and settled outcome.
We must have laws which reflect our current realities. The Electoral Commission has uncovered far more law-breaking than even we thought had occurred. The Government needs to take urgent action to deal with the fact the referendum is now illegitimate. We need to wake up and start fixing our democracy.
These problems will not solve themselves. Until there are adequate deterrents against cheating, bad actors will continue to take advantage of our democracy and break the law. This is unacceptable. Elections and referenda have serious consequences and cheating in these campaigns must be punished.
Parliament must act immediately to implement common sense electoral reforms. The Electoral Commission’s report makes clear that our current system is not fit for purpose. With such monumental decisions such as Brexit at stake, we cannot stand by and allow our democratic processes to be denigrated and our votes cheated. Parliament must act and we must have fair votes for all.
Kyle Taylor is director of The Fair Vote Project.