Political parties: listen to your members

ORG’s Data and Democracy Project has been working for over a year to limit the use of personal data by political parties. Often, we have found broad agreement on the shape and scope of reform, with some of the strongest voices being those of MPs. 

It’s not MPs who are responsible for setting these policies however. In fact, it’s political parties themselves; specifically, party officials such as general secretaries, heads of fundraising and compliance officers. They determine not just whether their policies meet the required legal standard, but the ethics and norms of processing personal data for their political gain.

A recent survey conducted by ORG of political party members suggests that a significant number think these policies are not good enough.

Although political parties claim to process personal data in line with data protection law, a growing body of legal opinion suggests otherwise. In particular, an overly broad interpretation of the democratic engagement lawful basis for processing (often referred to as an ‘exemption’) is proving problematic. The law states that political parties should only process non-special category personal data that is “necessary for an activity that supports or promotes democratic engagement”. The sheer volume and variety of personal data that political parties accrue for this seems unlikely to be strictly necessary, and more likely a desperate attempt to seek electoral advantage at any cost. 

So far, ORG’s calls for reform from political parties have fallen on deaf ears. Most political parties are, however, (nominally) accountable to their membership. As a result, ORG recently conducted a poll to see what party members thought about political profiling. A self-selecting pool of 727 respondents completed the survey. At least 84% of these were members of a political party.

Of those respondents, 76% were extremely concerned about human rights such as privacy and expression being challenged online. This suggests that digital rights are important for those party members that took our survey. Party officials should respond to that demand for a policy agenda. 

Most significantly, only 2% of our respondents agreed with the statement ‘political parties should be able to profile however they like’. By contrast, 50% of respondents agreed most with the statement ‘political parties should profile lawfully, based on the consent of individuals’.  This suggests that many of our respondents want to significantly tighten the legal basis for political parties to process personal data and move to an opt in model instead. 

Although party officials might justify their profiling activities as realpolitik, it’s not clear their members hold the same view. 96% of respondents said no when asked ‘should political parties aim to win elections at all costs, even if it means breaking the law’. Suprisingly, 34% of respondents agreed most with the statement ‘political parties shouldn’t profile at all’. Overall 84% of respondents agreed with a statement that aimed for a stricter basis for profiling than the status quo. 

ORG will continue to work with party members who want to see the use of personal data by political parties significantly tightened. It is clear to us that a significant number of them reject the use of the democratic engagement exemption and want to switch to a consent based model. Party officials should take note.