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Conservative Think Tank Urges Sunak to Sabotage Labour Plans for Electoral and Political Reform

The opaquely-funded group has close links to the Prime Minister

Rishi Sunak at Policy Exchange’s 2023 Summer reception. Screengrab: Policy Exchange / YouTube

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A leading Conservative think tank with close ties to Rishi Sunak is calling on him to bring in a new law designed to force a potential Labour government to hold a referendum on any future changes to the electoral system.

“What do we want from the King’s Speech?” is a new report setting what the registered charity calls an “ambitious programme” of 14 new laws that the Government “should announce” in the King’s Speech this month. It will be the last Parliamentary Session before the general election. 

It comes despite the Policy Exchange think tank’s silence on the current Government’s imposition of mandatory voter ID and changing the mayoral voting system. 

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Proposals put forward by Policy Exchange include:

  1. ‘Tough’ new minimum sentences for repeat shoplifting offenders and creating a new offence of aggravated begging. 
  2. Capping the number of people going to university each year 
  3. Standing up to “radical gender ideology” in schools by creating a new absolute right for parents to see what is being taught to their children – a policy that Conservative ministers have indicated they will push forward 
  4. “Protecting the constitution” by ensuring any attempt to change the voting system or lower the voting age is approved in a national referendum. Policy Exchange says it “would stop a future government lowering the voting age to 16, or introducing proportional representation, without a referendum.”

Policy Exchange is closely linked to Sunak and gave him his first job at Westminster, before he entered Parliament.

Sunak told the organisation’s summer party this June that the think tank “helped to draft” his Government’s laws clamping down on climate protests, Politico reported at the time.

Multiple Sunak aides, including his chief of staff Liam Booth-Smith also worked for them in the past.

The Chancellor Jeremy Hunt was guest of honour at their main drinks event at this year’s Conservative party conference, where he told them that they were “great friends of the Conservative Party” who “put fuel in our tank”.

One Liberal Democrat Lord told Byline Times that the feeling in Parliament is that the organisation’s new report is a “good indication” of what might be in the Prime Minister’s upcoming King’s Speech.


Gerrymandering for Some

The new report – parts of which are written with the structure of actual legislation – is “a terrible mishmash of things they’re likely to do…The ‘Referendum Lock’ Bill is in there to stop electoral reform…It is completely ridiculous because any Government who wants to introduce electoral reform will introduce a bill – the first clause of which will be to repeal that provision”, the peer added. 

The report states: “Parliamentary Sovereignty is at the heart of our historic freedoms, yet in recent years trust in our political system has fallen. This has been marked by increasing concern over…threats to gerrymander the electoral system by expanding the franchise to EU citizens or 16 year olds, or by changing the method of voting – despite the last proposal to do so being defeated by 68:32 in a referendum in 2011.”

‘Gerrymandering’ is an interesting choice of word here. As Byline Times first reported, Conservative former Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg MP admitted that introducing mandatory voter ID was a deliberate form of ‘gerrymandering’ by his own party to deliberately skew the vote in their favour. 

He told the National Conservatism Conference in London this summer that the plans were a “clever scheme” by his party to swing voters in their favour. He added that the plans had “backfired” due to more older Conservative voters being less aware of the changes at the recent local elections.

“Parties that try and gerrymander end up finding their clever scheme comes back to bite them, as dare I say we found by insisting on voter ID for elections”, Rees Mogg said.

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Missing the Point

On public trust in politics, there is no mention of the fall being caused by the deluge of sleaze among – often Conservative – politicians over the past decade. 

A total of 17 MPs currently have the party whip suspended for a hideous medley of scandals – concerning everything from breaches of lobbying rules to racism and sexual assault allegations. 

Two Conservative MPs are currently under police investigation for rape allegations (both deny the claims). Another five MPs are under investigation by Parliament’s Standards Commission, largely over alleged failure to declare outside earnings, and illicit lobbying. 

And another dozen other MPs have been forced to resign since the 2019 election over allegations including watching porn in Parliament (Neil Parish), groping (Chris Pincher), lying to Parliament (Boris Johnson) and more. 

The report goes on to claim that its Parliamentary Franchise (Referendum Lock) Bill would “protect the parliamentary franchise, the electoral system, and the structure of Parliament by preventing them from being changed unless the support of the British people had been formally obtained in a referendum.”

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In a somewhat bizarre claim given that the public opposed withdrawing from the EU when the Brexit referendum was first proposed, they add: “It would also be wrong for Parliament to change the franchise or the electoral system if or when the electorate opposed such changes, which might be the case even if there was cross-party support for some change. 

“These evils may be avoided if Parliament only changes the franchise or electoral system when the British people have supported such a change in a referendum.”

In Policy Exchange’s eyes, the same principle would hold for – funnily enough – proposed Labour legislation to reform the House of Lords, change that would “radically reshape our parliamentary democracy.”

“Such a major change to parliamentary democracy should not be made without the clear support of the British people.”

However, Policy Exchange don’t appear to have complained when the Conservatives changed the voting system electing Mayors to First Past the Post – a move which many electoral commentators note disproportionately benefits the Conservative party. Or when the Government extended their control over the elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission by allowing ministers to set its strategy.

Or mandatory voter ID, Policy Exchange appears to have never tweeted or spoken out on it. Saying that, former Spectator and Telegraph editor Lord Charles Moore, Thatcher’s biographer and a visiting fellow at Policy Exchange, appeared to back implementing voter ID with no referendum in his maiden speech while the Elections Bill was going through. 

He told his fellow unelected Lords: “Faith [in democracy] is declining. There is serious controversy about personation, intimidation, proxy votes, postal vote harvesting and so on.” 

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Labour in the Firing Line

The ‘charitable’ think tank’s director of research went so far as to pen an article last month for ConservativeHome – making it clear that the bill aims to stifle a future Labour Government from any plans for reform. Support for Proportional Representation has been growing in the party, with conference passing a motion in favour and the overwhelming majority of members and unions now being in favour.

It’s not just PR but other progressive democratic reform. “With Labour openly talking about lowering the voting age to sixteen, a move without bipartisan support that would be clearly in their self-interest, and with other parties proposing even more radical changes, the Government should act now to safeguard our democracy,” the organisation’s Director of Research and Head of Education and Science writes.

“The Welsh Labour Government and the SNP Scottish Government have already legislated to allow all resident foreigners to vote in local and devolved elections,” he wrote. 

Where are Policy Exchange’s calls coming from? We have little insight into their funding. As noted in a parliamentary question last December, an audit conducted by openDemocracy found that think-tanks such as the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs and Policy Exchange—favourites of the Conservative party—had raised more than £14 million from “mystery donors” in the past two years. They lobby while receiving tax-free status from the Charity Commission. 

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As Klina Jordan, Chief Executive of Make Votes Matter tells me: “Rishi Sunak was right to say in his Conference speech that ‘there is an undeniable sense that politics just doesn’t work the way it should’… There’s a clear mandate for change. Opposition parties and the majority of voters understand that our unfair voting system is fuelling distrust and alienation in our politics.”

As she notes, the Government has already shown it thinks a normal Act of Parliament is an appropriate way to change the voting system – by extending First Past the Post to mayoral elections. “The British people don’t want a Government elected on a minority of the vote saying yet again that it’s one rule for them, and another rule for everyone else,” Jordan adds. 

Another PR campaigner told Byline Times the ‘referendum lock’ call was a sign that the Right ‘are clearly scared’ of the growing push for reform. 

There’s another issue here, which relates to the blurred lines between charitable think tanks and partisan campaigns. Charities are allowed to campaign, including for a change in the law, as long as it is in support of the charity’s purposes. But when does that cross a line? Policy Exchange’s demands for change are aimed at, backed by, and seem to favour only one party’s MP’s. 

In what appears to be a glaring hypocrisy – through its silence on major Conservative constitutional changes, and planned Labour reforms – have Rishi Sunak’s old pals crossed a line?

Policy Exchange was contacted for comment.


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