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Ministers have been accused of politicising the UK’s independent elections watchdog, as Conservative MPs pushed through a Government-written strategy for the Electoral Commission for the first time in its history.
This afternoon the Government used its majority to pass a new ‘Strategy and Policy statement’ meant to guide the work and priorities of the UK elections body.
An example of the shift in emphasis might be seen in the fact the new Government-written strategy mentions “fraud” eleven times, but “donations” (e.g. to political parties) just twice. The Electoral Commission’s primary enforcement powers are over breaches of donations rules – for example if a party wrongly accepts a donation from a foreign source.
Critics of the Government’s “power grab” point out that voter fraud – for example, through the kind of impersonation mandatory photo ID is meant to prevent – is a vanishingly rare occurrence in the UK. Instead, issues surrounding electoral malpractice by candidates and parties, and breaches of political donations rules are more common.
Local Government minister Simon Hoare opened the Commons debate by downplaying concerns about the government’s new strategy for the Electoral Commission, insisting it does not undermine the Commission’s independence.
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He claimed the new policy statement, laid before the House on 14th December, is an “advisory” document, without introducing new governmental powers or reporting duties for the Commission.
But Labour MP Clive Betts, the chair of the Commons constitutional affairs committee , expressed his “disbelief” at the claims that the new strategy would not significantly impact the EC’s work – asking what the point of the new strategy was if the Commission isn’t required to act on it.
Former Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who sits on the Speaker’s Committee which oversees the Commission, raised concerns about the repeated use of the word “should” in the Government document. “If the Commission then ignores that word ‘should’ – what then happens? There’s an implied threat around a ‘should’,” McDonnell told the Commons.
In comments unlikely to settle nerves, minister Hoare reiterated that the new strategy is not a “revolutionary power grab” but an “augmentation”. He described it as “benign”, aiming to support, not direct, the Commission.
But several MPs noted that future governments may not be so “benign” in their use of these new Government powers over the watchdog.
Labour backbencher Cat Smith MP, who sits on the Speaker’s Committee, said: “Voters rely on the EC to safeguard democracy itself – not to allow one party to set all the rules.
“While one party might be in government today, there will have to be an election. Another party could write the next statement…
“The structures we make should be able to withstand changes of party. This structure comes straight out of a Republican party playbook, politicising the Electoral Commission.”
Fellow Labour left-winger Dawn Butler labelled the strategy a hangover from Boris Johnson’s tenure, aimed at undermining the Commission’s independence when it ruled against Conservative party or Brexiteer figures.
Butler noted that the EC itself wrote to MPs this week stressing that the independence of the body is crucial to maintaining confidence in the democratic system. “If they’re saying that, and the Speaker’s Committee is [then the changes] don’t make any sense.
“This is about fulfilling the Government’s priorities. By definition that means it can’t be independent. If a foreign Government was wielding this much power over its elections, there would be calls to send in independent advisers to ensure their elections were being held democratically.
“Do we have corruption? Yes, we do. This is an example of that,” Butler added.
Clive Betts slammed the new strategy for potentially skewing the Commission’s priorities – focusing on registering overseas voters – while neglecting the nine million people missing from the electoral register in the UK.
The Scottish National Party’s Patrick Grady was outspoken in branding the move politically motivated in anticipation of difficult elections for the Conservatives this year.
Labour’s shadow democracy minister, Florence Eshalomi MP, accused the government of railroading the statement through parliament.
Former constitution minister, Tory Chloe Smith noted that 2024 is a significant year for elections – emphasising the role of AI and the necessity for the Electoral Commission to address potential misinformation and election integrity.
However, the Government’s strategy includes not one mention of artificial intelligence, deepfakes or misinformation – issues which could have a significant impact on this year’s votes.
In closing, Minister Hoare reaffirmed the Commission’s independence as “absolutely sacrosanct”.
But in words that may come back to bite him, he added the Government strategy was “iterative and organic – and of course, it can be refreshed to deal with issues as they arise…I use the word ‘as’ not ‘if’”.
It was a recognition that the Conservatives – and future Governments – will be at liberty to change the Electoral Commission’s strategy however and whenever they wish.
The new EC strategy passed on party lines by 273 votes to the opposition’s 190. There were no Conservative rebels.
Lib Dem peer Lord Chris Rennard attempted to launch a ‘fatal motion’ against the changes in the Lords, but Labour did not get behind the plan. Peers will vote on a non-binding ‘motion of regret’ over the plans on Tuesday.
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