The Russia report is neatly summarised in one sentence from its 47 pages: “It is clear that Russia poses a significant threat to the UK on a number of fronts – from espionage to interference in democratic processes, and to serious crime” This sentence highlights three specific areas of concern: security; democracy; and crime.
Immediately the government attempted their usual deflection with a lame response on just the first point. Their suggestion that foreign agents could be required to register will apparently strengthen security laws. The prime minister deflected the second point by accusing “Islingtonian remainers” of suggesting that Russia was somehow responsible for Brexit. He conveniently ignored the subject of serious crime, and even the leader of the opposition limited his questions at PMQs to the government’s failure on security, which left us vulnerable.
The report is about more than Russia. The second point is the most serious and the third point is closely related to it. We don’t have a functioning democracy for a number of reasons, perhaps best summarised by the phrase “elective dictatorship,” coined by Lord Hailsham (a former Tory MP). The phrase is apt because it articulates a suggestion that Britain is a country which started on the road to democracy, went so far, then gave up.
The report fundamentally questions whether electoral law is sufficiently up-to-date, given the move from physical billboards to online, micro-targeted political campaigning. It states that we are “clearly vulnerable to covert digital influence campaigns.” It then goes on to mention that the Electoral Commission may not have sufficient powers to ensure the security of the democratic process. Small wonder when the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport has primary responsibility for disinformation campaigns but the Electoral Commission – separately termed “an arm’s length body” – has responsibility for overall security. There is a prevailing message of split responsibilities across multiple departments, with a distinct lack of coordination and leadership.
Having received the report in 2019 and being told of the risk to security and the suspected inadequacy of our electoral process, the government chose to press ahead with the December general election and use the known electoral weaknesses rather than making the process fit for purpose in the national interest. And now, after the report was finally released, Boris Johnson deliberately misses the point. The report is not about Brexit; it is about interference in the electoral process and our lack of awareness and control. Such interference was not only run in the EU referendum but previously in the Scottish and the EU referendums, then again in the US Presidential election.
Why was the report deliberately withheld and what methods were used to run interference?
Firstly disinformation is spread through Bots and Trolls for the purpose of influencing elections. This involves the mining of personal data to use methods of ‘hack and leak.’ Russian distortion has been traced to two state-owned sources: RT and Sputnik. While Cambridge Analytica is not mentioned in the report, their data mining techniques were highly relevant to these methods.
Equally seriously, political advertising on social media needs urgent review and regulation. Although this point was outside the committee’s remit, it concurred with the DCMS Select Committee’s conclusion that our regulatory framework needs urgent review if it is to be fit for purpose in the age of widespread social media. Yet again, such adverts, some including blatant lies and smears, were deliberately used in the 2019 election, and almost exclusively by the party in power.
So far we have a government that was told of previous interference in the electoral process, along with an infrastructure that is incapable of fixing it; and not only does our voting system need end-to-end study but political advertising and social media use need urgent review. If this alone does not show a lack of democracy and the need for reform, the report introduces the subject of corruption.
It explains that we welcomed Russian Oligarchs and their money “with open arms” into what is described as the “London Laundromat.” Hardly surprising that we would welcome such activities into the world capital of dark money and money laundering. It highlights links to politicians but fails to mention any party. There is further mention of such links to the House of Lords, which has no register of financial interest, such as in the Commons. One relevant passage states: “Several members of the Russian elite who are closely linked to Putin are identified as being involved with charitable and/or political organisations in the UK, having donated to political parties, with a public profile which positions them to assist Russian influence operations.” The report then goes in to say such relationships should be carefully scrutinised. There is no analysis of political donations, although Tom Coberg has separately found that over £2.5 million was donated to the Tory Party or individual Tory MPs.
This coincides with a regulatory system where the Commissioner for Standards is an independent member of the House of Commons and MPs are allowed to receive secondary occupational income and pursue external financial interests that may well result in a conflict of interest. Clearly politics needs cleaning up, and far beyond the recommendations of this report – none of which have been attempted. Who is brave enough to clean up politics and deliver real democracy?