Do we need new laws to prevent lies during election campaigns?

Rishi Sunak’s debunked claim raises questions over misinformation

Ever since he entered office, Rishi Subak has claimed to be a different kind of prime minister to Boris Johnson, but both men know that electioneering is a craft with its own devices, where the aim is to control the discourse. No matter how outrageous or dishonest the claim, and no matter the vehemence of the rebuttals, criticisms and objections that may follow, all that matters is maintaining the narrative.

The prime minister’s claims of a £2,000 tax hike under a Labour government is a textbook example. The issue has dominated the election campaign this week, with Sir Keir Starmer accusing Mr Sunak of “deliberately” lying. Even as the Treasury’s permanent secretary contradicted Mr Sunak’s assertion that the figure was arrived at by impartial civil servants, the Tories are standing by the remarks.

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During the Brexit referendum, Mr Johnson and Vote Leave infamously employed this tactic via a campaign battle bus, insisting the NHS would get an extra £350 million a week. It was comprehensively debunked, but remained a central talking point that stuck with voters. Indeed, more than two years after the referendum, King’s College London found that 42 per cent of people who had heard of the £350m claim still believed it to be true.

There is every reason to believe that Mr Sunak’s nonsense Labour tax claim will prove just as persuasive. It would be cheering to think that were the public presented with all the necessary facts, they would arrive at the obvious conclusion. But politics is guided by emotional responses, and at a time when the cost of living crisis has no end in sight, it is easy for misperceptions around tax hikes to take root.

The question of how we tackle this scourge in the rough and tumble of an election campaign has no easy answer. Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 is a limited and specific piece of legislation designed to prevent lies being spread. But it applies only to false remarks or statements relating to a candidate’s personal character or conduct. In other words, if mistruths are uttered about political issues, they are deemed fair game.

Attempting to tighten those regulations is problematic. The criteria and the burden of proof would be hotly disputed, and an entity such as the Electoral Commission would rightly have misgivings given the importance it places on its own independence. And yet, something, surely, has to change.

It is absurd that commercial companies are bound to strict rules around misleading, unintelligible or ambiguous advertising, yet the leaders of major political parties need pay no heed to a similar set of safeguards during televised debates. The argument made in favour of the status quo is that it is the electorate who should act as the judge whenever a politician lies, not the courts. But at a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult for voters to determine the truth amidst a flurry of exaggeration, distortion, and misinformation, is the electorate capable of such a decision? It is right that politicians are able to hold free and robust exchanges. Yet with every lie that is told, democracy is dragged further into the dirt, and the public’s already fragile faith in the political process is further eroded.

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