The Electoral Commission must remain independent of government influence. Write to your MP!

Creator unknown. Twitter

Yesterday, in a speech of breathtaking hypocrisy, the prime minister stated an intention to

“sanction Russian individuals and companies of strategic importance to the Russian state [in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine]; and we will make it impossible for them to raise finance on the London capital markets; and we will open up the matryoshka dolls of Russian-owned companies and Russian-owned entities to find the ultimate beneficiaries within.”

This is something that all governments should be doing anyway, except that London has for some time now been hailed as the Russians’ principal laundromat for dirty money.

In any event, it is all pretty rich coming from a man whose party has accepted £2.3m in Russian donations since 2019 and from the same Boris Johnson who suppressed the Russia report and then took NO action to implement any of its recommendations, ignoring profound concerns over the penetration of Russian influence into our politics, including interference in the disastrous EU referendum. As the Labour MP for Exeter Ben Bradshaw said back in 2019:

“Now we know one of the reasons Boris Johnson is suppressing the official report into Kremlin penetration of our democracy. It’s because of the substantial and growing links between Russian money and the Tory Party.”

Johnson also said in the same Munich speech and without a glimmer of irony that:

“Britain will always stand up for freedom and democracy around the world”

It is a shame that the bills going through parliament include a wide range of measures to suppress democracy, remove or limit human rights and access to justice and suppress voters in the interests of an increasingly authoritarian and fascistic ruling party, giving the absolute lie to this alleged passion for democracy and freedom. Instead, Johnson pursues an anti-democratic strategy of which Putin would be proud. Maybe that’s what Putin paid for and is now one of the very few areas in which Johnson has or is attempting to deliver. (Oh, and the mega wealthy advisory board made up of Tory donors that decides to junk Covid mitigation measures, block tax rises for the rich etc…but that is a different can of worms.)

We are witnessing a sustained coup as the state is captured by the Conservative party, inserting cronies in key roles, bypassing parliamentary scrutiny, flouting codes and standards, filling our cultural institutions with mates and donors, selling peerages, threatening to disempower any with the power to hold them to account and generally acting as if they are above the law.

The Elections Bill has been a key area of concern for all defenders of our increasingly fragile democracy. Amongst the many egregious measures in the bill to stomp on alliances and suppress voters from opposition demographics, this regime is turning their guns on the independent Electoral Commission, an entity which is already short of teeth such that whilst its bark may be ferocious, its bite is virtually harmless, with fines that can be written off as the cost of ‘doing a corruption’ (see the breaches by Vote Leave in the referendum). The last thing this body needs is for those few teeth to be torn out and replaced with government dentures.

The public aren’t stupid. They have copped the erosion of integrity in political campaigning and the weakness of any sanctions on rule-breakers. These undemocratic measures come at a time when trust in the democratic process is declining fast. The Electoral Commission’s own research into public attitudes found that:

The number of people who felt that they had a great/ fair influence on politics and public affairs halved from 22% in 2020 (pre pandemic) to 11% in 2021. This trend was greatest in England and Wales.

This reflects, no doubt, the growing dissatisfaction with first past the post coupled with a government which has repeatedly broken the law with scant consequence.

Only 10 per cent of those surveyed felt that online political campaigns were honest, with 46 per cent judging them to be untrue or misleading. It’s good that people are seeing through social media campaigns etc but their use and abuse is only going to get worse – more sophisticated and with more money thrown at them.

49 per cent think election spending and finance lack transparency and trust in the Commission’s ability to take appropriate action in the face of breaches has slumped from 58 per cent in 2017 to only 35 per cent today.

So, yeah, let’s have those teeth out.

The report goes on to cover the public’s perception of the Commission:

35% have heard either a great deal or a fair amount about the Commission (up from 29% in 2020 but in line with 2018 and 2019)

When asked specifically whether they have heard about the Commission in the past 12 months, this has dipped from 26% to 20%.

‘Independent’ is still the word people associate most with the Commission (24% chose this). ‘Bureaucratic’ is now the second most associated word at 20% (up from 16% in 2020). ‘Important’ is down to third, going from 25% in 2020 to 19% in 2021. There was an increase in the number of people who say that they don’t know what word(s) to associate with the Electoral Commission, from 20% in 2020 to 32% in 2021. 

Notice how the propaganda has already eroded ‘important’ and increased the dog whistle ‘bureaucratic’ descriptors.

The government’s main objective now is to have done with the independence…the single most important feature of this vital, essential organ of scrutiny and regulation.

The moves have prompted the Electoral Commission to write this letter, reproduced in full.

Date: 21 February 2022

The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP – Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Communities and Housing
The Rt Hon Kemi Badenoch MP – Minister for Levelling Up Communities
The Rt Hon Lord True CBE – Minister of State, the Cabinet Office

John Pullinger – Chair and Electoral Commissioner
Sarah Chambers – Electoral Commissioner
Rob Vincent – Electoral Commissioner
Dame Sue Bruce – Electoral Commissioner (Scotland)
Professor Dame Elan Closs Stephens – Electoral Commissioner (Wales)
Dr Katy Radford – Electoral Commissioner (Northern Ireland)
Alex Attwood – Electoral Commissioner (nominated by the smaller parties)
Alasdair Morgan – Electoral Commissioner (nominated by the Scottish National Party)
Joan Walley – Electoral Commissioner (nominated by the Labour Party)

Format: Sent by email

Full letter

Dear Ministers,

As the Elections Bill enters its Lords stages, we write to you to urge the Government to reconsider those measures which seek to change the oversight arrangements of the Electoral Commission. Our aim, which we anticipate you share, is to maintain the Commission’s current independence and its accountability to all parties elected to the parliaments of the United Kingdom. Reflecting the significance of this matter, this letter is signed collectively from the full board of the Commission, save for Lord Gilbert of Panteg (our Conservative nominated Commissioner) because the House of Lords where he sits is now considering this legislation.

It is our firm and shared view that the introduction of a Strategy and Policy Statement – enabling the Government to guide the work of the Commission – is inconsistent with the role that an independent electoral commission plays in a healthy democracy. This independence is fundamental to maintaining confidence and legitimacy in our electoral system.

If made law, these provisions will enable a government in the future to influence the Commission’s operational functions and decision-making. This includes its oversight and enforcement of the political finance regime, but also the advice and guidance it provides to electoral administrators, parties and campaigners, and its work on voter registration. The Statement would place a duty on the Commission to have regard to the government’s strategic and policy priorities and to help the government to meet those priorities. The Statement would also place a duty on the Commission to have regard to guidance issued by the Government relating to any of its functions. It would thereby provide a mechanism, driven by the then governing party, enabling that party’s ministers to shape how electoral law is applied to them and their political competitors. While the stated position of the current government is that it would not intend to use these powers to impact on the Commission’s independent oversight and regulation of the electoral system, no such assurances can be given about how the broad scope of these powers would be used over time.  

The Statement has no precedent in the accountability arrangements of electoral commissions in other comparable democracies, such as Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Indeed, the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters of the Venice Commission, of which the UK is a member, states that “Only transparency, impartiality and independence from political motivated manipulation will ensure proper administration of the election process”.

The Commission’s accountability is direct to the UK’s parliaments and should remain so, rather than being subject to government influence. The current mechanism for scrutiny and accountability to UK Parliament – with parallel arrangements in the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd – is through the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, a cross party committee which scrutinises the Commission’s financial, operational and strategic planning. This is appropriate and we would welcome such additional scrutiny as the Speaker’s Committee saw fit to take into account government and other views on the priorities and performance of the Commission, in determining that the Corporate Plan and work of the Commission is focussed and delivers on its statutory obligations. This would meet the Government’s stated objective of more effective and full accountability to Parliament, while maintaining a cross party setting. 

We therefore urge the Government to think again about these measures, to remove the provisions, and to work with the Commission and Speaker’s Committee to ensure that suitable accountability arrangements are in place to ensure confidence across the political spectrum. Strong accountability is essential for this, but so too is demonstrable independence. The Commission’s independent role in the electoral system must be clear for voters and campaigners to see, and preserved in electoral law. 

“Only transparency, impartiality and independence from political[ly- ]motivated manipulation will ensure proper administration of the election process”.

(I have corrected their English)

We need to fight tooth and nail for this. After all, it’s not as though we are unaware what happens when this government marks it own homework and decides to run roughshod over truth and integrity and ignore the rule of law. #Partygate, anyone?

Please write to your MP and urge them to heed the Electoral Commission’s warning and remove the provisions in the bill which would compromise that essential independence.

Democracy is under assault on multiple fronts and we have to fight every battle if it is to survive.