This Motion sets to provide an amendment to the Electoral Commission Strategy and Policy Statement. Lord Rennard highlights the importance of the Electoral Commission’s independence in ensuring fair and transparent elections.
An independent election watchdog should not operate under such threats in a democracy.
The Electoral Commission is not like other regulators, such as those for the utility industries. Its role includes advising on the framing of election laws and it helps to police them. It is not appropriate, therefore, for the party in power to set the commission’s policy and strategy.
Lord Rennard gives four examples of how this Government have history in seeking to change the rules of elections to favour themselves. The first is the introduction of very specific forms of photo ID in order to vote at a polling station.
“Conservative ministers have ‘opened themselves’ up to the charge that a new voter identification scheme is designed to benefit the Tory party, according to the head of the UK elections watchdog”.Mr John Pullinger, Financial Times.
This is the seventh Government since the commission was created. None of the previous six Governments sought to control it in the way that is now set out. The excellent previous chair of the commission, Sir John Holmes, found that his term of office was not renewed by the Government after he and the commission pursued illegal activity by the Conservative Party. This resulted in a senior Conservative Party official escaping jail only on compassionate grounds, but after a damning judgment by Mr Justice Edis.
Increasing the national party expense limit from around £19.5 million to around £36 million is clearly designed to benefit one party only—the Conservative Party.
No previous Government of any party or colour have sought to raise this limit. All my questions about national party spending have been met with answers relevant only to local candidate spending, which of course is quite different. This Government have changed the national spending limits unilaterally and without a vote in Parliament.
The Fourth and Final example:
The ban, in 2022, on the distribution of political literature by party volunteers in the approach to major local elections. No such ban was imposed on the distribution of political literature by pre-existing commercial operators. It cannot conceivably be a coincidence that the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats rely mainly on volunteer activists to deliver their leaflets. While the Conservative Party generally relies on paying commercial delivery companies to distribute its leaflets.
So I asked why one form of delivery was banned when exactly the same activity by employees of commercial firms used by the Conservatives was not banned. I was frequently told that this was because of scientific, health and medical advice. After asking repeatedly for some of this purported evidence to be made available, it never was.
The Electoral Commission must remain independent and free from political interference to uphold the principles of democracy and ensure that elections are conducted fairly and transparently.
I then pursued sight of this evidence through freedom of information requests and was told by the Cabinet Office that it would not be in the public interest to disclose any of it. If that is so, why not? My requests were repeatedly dragged out for as long as possible. When my requests for information were eventually still refused, I appealed to the Information Commissioner. Then, after months of stalling, there was a miracle.
What the Government had spent months saying that they had. That was said was not in the public interest to disclose. Now, never existed in the first place.
How could evidence that Ministers regularly claimed they relied on to change election rules in their favour never have existed? The Information Commissioner investigated further and, eventually and despite my incredulity, decided on the balance of probabilities that the evidence did not exist after all. I suggest that it can be shown beyond reasonable doubt that this Government cannot be trusted to issue such a strategy and policy statement, and to take significant control over the previously independent Electoral Commission.
This situation underscores the importance of maintaining the independence of institutions like the Electoral Commission to ensure that electoral rules are not manipulated for political gain. Allowing the government to exert significant control over the Electoral Commission could further exacerbate concerns about the integrity of the electoral process.