University of Sheffield: Significant holes in election spending, new report reveals

Nearly 15 per cent of spending by political parties during the 2019 UK general election campaign is unaccounted for, according to a new report from researchers at the University of Sheffield.

The report, commissioned by the intergovernmental organisation the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), shows that despite having what is often thought as a world-leading transparency regime, there is much we don’t know about the services provided at UK elections.

According to the new study, lax reporting means that approximately 15 per cent of total expenditure at the 2019 election – £6.6 million – came in the form of unclear invoices.

For the first time, Dr Kate Dommett and Dr Andrew Barclay from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Politics and International Relations, together with other leading election finance experts, have painstakingly analysed every single invoice submitted to the Electoral Commission – a legal requirement when parties spend over £200 on a supplier during a campaign – to gain a better picture of the companies, suppliers and individuals operating at elections.

The report provides clear insight into where parties focus their spending.

While a huge amount is spent on the production of campaign materials and leaflets – £21.5 million – the report reveals new campaigning techniques have become embedded alongside traditional methods. According to the study, over 50 per cent of all advertising spend was on social media ads (and over 70 per cent online), just over £4 million was spent on research, and nearly £1.2 million was spent on consultants.

Dr Kate Dommett, Senior Lecturer in the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield, said: “The UK is often heralded for its best practice around electoral transparency, but our analysis has revealed significant holes in existing transparency requirements.

“It’s currently possible for parties to provide little meaningful information, or to be deliberately elusive about what is disclosed, suggesting an urgent need to reform existing processes.”

Key findings from the report include:

It is not possible to determine exactly what more than one in every £10 was spent on at the 2019 general election.
Over £10 million was spent on advertising, 73 per cent of which was online in the form of social media ads or wider digital advertising.
By far, the most prominent form of spending by parties (over £21 million) was on campaign materials, principally in the form of printing and delivery of said materials.
The current expenditure categories are not fit for purpose, as they do not reflect the realities of modern campaigns—particularly as it relates to digital. Legislation should be introduced which addresses this, and the numerous other transparency concerns raised by this report.
Dr Sam Power, Lecturer in Corruption Analysis at Sussex University and co-author of the report, added: “That we cannot be certain how at least £6.6 million was spent at the 2019 general election is genuinely shocking. The Conservatives have shown a considerable interest in reforming electoral law, and the Electoral Commission, during their time in office. There are sensible reforms here which can be actioned with relative ease and should be considered as a matter of course before the next election.”

The report, Regulating the Business of Election Campaigns, was led by Dr Kate Dommett and Dr Andrew Barclay from the University of Sheffield, Dr Sam Power from the University of Sussex and Dr Amber Macintyre from Tactical Tech – an international NGO that engages with citizens and civil-society organisations to explore the impacts of technology on society.

The report was commissioned by the Stockholm-based intergovernmental organisation the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA).

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