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Electoral advertising has not been regulated since 1999, when the ASA ‘bowed out.’ The Committee for Standards in Public Life subsequently recommended ‘that the political parties seek to agree a code of best practice in partnership with the advertising industry to apply to the non-broadcast media,’ but ‘there appears to have been no action taken.’

The intervening period has seen widespread abuse by all political parties: our review of 2019 General Election advertising highlighted some of the worst cases, though the most famous example probably occurred in 2016 when the ‘Brexit bus’ claim was widely condemned. Neither voters, opposing factions, the media, consumer groups, or legislators had any recourse whatsoever: there are no rules against false statements of fact in electoral advertising.

This is not an issue confined to lobby groups and political commentators: in 2016, we fielded research via YouGov that found that 85% of voters think that ‘it should be a legal requirement that factual claims in political adverts must be accurate.’ We fielded similar research in 2019 with a similar result – this time 87%.

The government is aware of the general issue of misinformation and disinformation in society and busy within it: the DCMS Disinformation and ‘fake news’ final report, and the Online Harms white paper both attempt to deal with one of the biggest issues of our time: misinformation in society and trust in politics and politicians. When it comes to advertising, however, the government appears to be more relaxed than voters: their response to the 2020 House of Lords recommendation that factual statements in advertising should be regulated was evasively in the negative, and hid behind a defense of ‘free speech’ when it is well understood that that is a fragile and conditional platform at the best of times, and we are not in those.  

There is an important distinction to be made between regular political discourse and statements in advertising. The former is almost inevitably in the presence of a moderator of some kind; politicians are naturally wary of ‘inaccuracies’ when in the presence of heavyweight political commentators. Often, opposing candidates will also be present to put a counter view. If any material statement is in, for example, the editorial pages of a newspaper, it will similarly be surrounded by commentary, or subject to the editor’s intervention. Advertising is entirely unprotected from misrepresentation: put bluntly, the only place that politicians can lie without fear of challenge is in advertising. So they lie in advertising.

We are proposing basically the same as the House of Lords in their 2020 recommendation: ‘The relevant experts in the ASA, the Electoral Commission, Ofcom and the UK Statistics Authority should co-operate through a regulatory committee on political advertising. Political parties should work with these regulators to develop a code of practice for political advertising, … that restricts fundamentally inaccurate advertising during a parliamentary or mayoral election, or referendum.’

We are confident that the very existence of such an organisation would in of itself prevent much of what currently occurs. The critical component for progress is political will, hopefully founded on the government’s recognition that the great majority of voters and many commentators feel strongly that political parties are exploiting absence of regulation in order to deliver a plethora of empty promises, shoddy appeals and downright lies.

We are not for profit and are run by unpaid volunteers. We rely on donations to continue our work. Please donate to our campaign here.