Why we need an independent Electoral Commission

The UK’s guardian of public ethics is reviewing the role of the Electoral Commission in regulating election finance. The evidence submitted to the inquiry shows wide support for maintaining, and in some ways enhancing, the Commission’s functions. But the regulator’s position is also challenged from some quarters, and the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is currently conducting its own enquiry. Alan Renwick and Charlotte Kincaid argue that the debate raises important wider questions about the place of checks and balances in our system of democratic governance.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life – the body charged with monitoring ethical standards in public life in the UK – is conducting a review of electoral regulation. The terms of reference focus largely on the role of the Electoral Commission in regulating election finance. The first stage was a public call for evidence, and the responses were published last month. 

Grabbing some media headlines was a suggestion in the response from the Conservative Party that the Electoral Commission might be abolished, with its core functions transferred to other bodies. This was not the only option put forward in the submission. Indeed, the central proposal appeared rather to be that the Commission should continue to operate, but with a more restrictively defined remit. Nevertheless, the general tenor was striking. The submission said: ‘The Electoral Commission consistently lobbies for itself to be given more powers – this is not an argument for doing so. Rather, this is public choice theory in action: quangos seeking to expand their remit for their own sake.’

Following the same logic, however, that is a political party seeking to abolish or curtail the remit of the regulator of political parties. If the argument from public choice theory has any force against the Electoral Commission, it has the same force against the Conservative Party. Both the Commission and the Conservatives have interests at stake here. But both also have a wealth of relevant experience. Their arguments should be judged on their merits, with an eye to the possibility that they may be skewed by the organisations’ particular interests.

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We must be realistic about what independent regulation of referendum campaigns might be able to achieve

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In the aftermath of the EU referendum much has been written about the conduct of referendums in the UK, and whether changes to the way referendum campaigns are regulated should be made in future. The latest contribution is a report by the Electoral Reform Society, in which a number of recommendations are made. In this post Alistair Clark writes that we must be realistic about how much independent regulation might be able to achieve. During the EU referendum independent authorities did speak out against Vote Leave’s £350 million claim, but with no noticeable effect on the campaign, whilst existing experience with regulatory bodies in the UK suggests that political parties push back against regulation and exploit loopholes.

With sincere apologies to Edwin Starr, referendums, what are they good for? If you believe much that has been written since the fateful decision on June 23, not much. Except of course for those writing reports and comment about how they have been conducted, the present author of this blog included. The latest in a long and continuing series of commentary is the Electoral Reform Society’s It’s Good To Talk: Doing Referendums Differently After the EU Vote, published on 1 September.

This is a typically thoughtful and provocative report from ERS. It essentially highlights the egregious quality of debate in the EU referendum, with lies, half-truths and obfuscation at a level rarely seen in British politics. That this was possible was because of the generally ill-informed nature of political debate and the lack of reliable political information. Many PSA members, this author included, signed an open letter orchestrated by the Constitution Unit and published in the Daily Telegraph during the referendum campaign, highlighting the level of misinformation and its likely impact on the democratic legitimacy of the result.

The consequences of this misinformation are becoming clearer by the day, and the warnings of the much derided ‘experts’ about the difficulties involved with Brexit are also being underlined by events. The actual date of triggering Article 50, never mind Brexit itself, recedes ever further into the distance. No-one is any clearer about what a post-Brexit UK might look like, despite some of the more outrageous claims during the campaign and recent statements by the Prime Minister and her cabinet.

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