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Referendum campaign literature

Published Wednesday, September 14, 2016

During the EU referendum campaign there were complaints about the claims put forward in campaign literature and calls for an independent body to oversee the truthfulness of claims made during political campaigns. This Briefing Paper looks at the regulation of campaign literature in the UK and in other countries.

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Is campaign material regulated?

There is very little regulation of election or referendum campaign literature in the United Kingdom. Political parties, candidates and referendum campaigners are responsible for the content of their own campaigns and they are subject to the general restrictions of criminal and civil law.

Party political, election and referendum broadcasts must adhere to editorial guidelines in relation to taste and decency but broadcasters have no control over the content of the message being conveyed.

There are two areas where campaign material is specifically regulated.

  • Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 prohibits the making or publishing a false statement of fact about the personal character or conduct of a candidate at an election (this does not apply at a referendum).
  • There is a legal requirement that campaign material should include an imprint of who has published the material to ensure voters can identify the source of the campaign literature.

What is the role of the Electoral Commission?

The regulatory role of the Electoral Commission relates to donations, loans and spending. During election or referendum campaign periods there are strict limits on spending. The Electoral Commission works actively with parties and referendum campaigns to ensure campaign expenditure is correctly declared. This includes advice on what is considered campaign activity for the purposes of the reporting of spending. However, the Commission has no role in regulating the factual content of material. The Commission has a page on its website, What we do and don’t regulate.

On 13 September 2016 the Electoral Commission published its report on the conduct of the EU referendum. The Commission had received over 1,000 complaints during the referendum about the content of campaign literature but said “it would be inappropriate for the Commission to be drawn into political debate by regulating the truthfulness of referendum campaign arguments. We would, however, be happy to contribute to any future debate in this area”.

Criticisms of the campaign literature published during the EU referendum campaign

Alan Renwick of UCL's Constitution Unit and other leading academics signed an open letter in the Daily Telegraph during the campaign complaining that “the level of misinformation in the current campaign is so great that democratic legitimacy is called into question”.

Calls for an Office of Electoral Integrity

There have also been calls for an independent regulator to oversee campaign claims. There is an Early Day Motion calling for an independent Office of Electoral Integrity to be established to factually verify the truthfulness of claims made during political campaigns, with powers to issue clarifications and fines where appropriate.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7678

Authors: Isobel White; Neil Johnston; Elise Uberoi

Topic: Elections

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