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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The rules of the election campaign: problems and potential solutions

alan.jfif (1)The election campaign that concluded last week was often a depressing sight for democrats, with rampant misinformation and occasional threats against institutions that try to foster better debate. In this post Alan Renwick identifies key problems and assesses four possible solutions. Given the prevailing political environment, he concludes, a concerted effort from parliamentarians, broadcasters, and others will be needed to carry the case for positive reforms forward. 

Electoral law in the UK urgently requires reform. This has been the unanimous conclusion of a slew of recent reports from respected organisations – including the Electoral Commission, Association of Electoral Administrators, and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committees in the House of Commons. Michela Palese and I also argued the case in a report earlier this year. Many aspects need attention. Some are drily technical: our complex and often opaque election rules badly need basic consolidation, simplification, and clarification. Others get to the heart of the kind of democracy we want to live in. Campaigning has been transformed by the digital communications revolution, but the rules have utterly failed to catch up.

This post focuses on campaign conduct. It begins by briefly reviewing problems during the 2019 election before focusing on four possible solutions. Finally, it considers the prospects for serious reform.

The conduct of the campaign

The shift to online campaigning continued apace. According to Facebook’s data, the three main parties’ central organisations alone spent £3.5 million on advertising on the site in the 12 months preceding the election, the great bulk of it coming during the campaign period. Each party posted thousands of separate ads, often targeted at very small numbers of voters. Local parties and other campaign groups also weighed in strongly. It will take considerable time for detailed analysis of all this material to be completed.

Misinformation was rampant throughout the campaign, from all sides. Boris Johnson’s core promise to ‘get Brexit done’ by 31 January 2020 was well known to be a gross simplification, while Conservative promises on new hospitals and extra nurses were found wanting. So were Labour’s claims that 95% of people would pay no extra tax under its plans and that the average family would save over £6,000. The Liberal Democrats were criticised most for misleading bar charts and sometimes manifestly false claims about their own electoral prospects.  Continue reading

Pre-appointment scrutiny hearings

robert-hazell-350x350In September the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee published their report into Pre-Appointment Scrutiny Hearings. Robert Hazell gave evidence to the committee’s inquiry on the subject; here he discusses the report’s conclusions, and describes the events that led to its being undertaken, including two Constitution Unit studies that evaluated the effectiveness of such scrutiny.  

The recently published report of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) was the product of an inquiry undertaken at the request of the Commons Liaison Committee, because of growing concerns amongst Select Committee chairs that pre-appointment scrutiny hearings were a charade, especially when the government ignored committee recommendations.  The Liaison Committee and PACAC both heard evidence from the former Constitution Unit Director, Professor Robert Hazell, who explained that pre-appointment hearings were more effective than MPs recognised, and suggested ways in which they could be made more effective still.

Pre-appointment scrutiny hearings were introduced by Gordon Brown, when he became Prime Minister in July 2007.  In his Green Paper The Governance of Britain he proposed:

… that the Government nominee for key positions … should be subject to a pre-appointment hearing with the relevant select committee. The hearing would be non-binding, but in the light of the report from the committee, Ministers would decide whether to proceed.  The hearings would cover issues such as the candidate’s suitability for the role, his or her key priorities, and the process used in the selection.

The Cabinet Office and the Liaison Committee subsequently agreed a list of just over 50 key positions which would be subject to the new procedure. Ten years later, by the end of the 2015-17 Parliament, there had been almost 100 scrutiny hearings, involving almost every single departmental Select Committee. The Constitution Unit conducted an early evaluation of the first 20 hearings in 2009-10, and a second study in 2016-17, looking at a further 70 hearings. Continue reading

Challenges to good government in Northern Ireland: charting a future course

alan_rialto2-1The first part of this blog looked at Northern Ireland’s troubled experience with government without ministers for the last year and a half; while the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry offered colourful but not uplifting revelations about the way it had been conducted under devolution; and Westminster’s conduct of its responsibilities was widely questioned. Alan Whysall asks what lies behind these problems?

A lack of interest in good government and public policy has long been part of the Northern Ireland political culture. The dialogue in politics and the media has always readily reverted to the traditional issues – and more now that the parties are not constrained by the need to work together.

Partly, this illustrates the seriousness of the political and community divide that politics must seek to bridge. But the reflection of that divide in the structure of politics in Northern Ireland also means that no alternative government is on offer during elections, so misconduct in government is harder for the electorate to sanction. If the great priority of most electors is to support their community’s champion against the other side, the detail of the champion’s conduct in government gets lost. Continue reading

Intimidation of candidates and others during political campaigns: the report and recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

Photo.001Following December’s publication of the Committee on Standards in Public Life report on Intimidation in Public Life, the Constitution Unit hosted a panel on 21 March to discuss the Committee’s findings and recommendations. The seminar was chaired by Dr Jennifer Hudson, Associate Professor in Political Behaviour at UCL and leader of Parliamentary Candidates UK (PCUK). The list of panellists included Lord Bew, who serves as Chair of the Committee. Overall, the seminar aimed to reflect on the Committee’s report and its wider implications for the nature of British public life. In this post, Lotte Hargrave summarises what was said.

Following the 2017 general election, the Prime Minister asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life to conduct an independent, non-partisan inquiry into the issue of intimidation and harassment during elections. The report undertakes a review of the intimidation of parliamentary candidates, a third of whom experienced harassment and intimidation during the campaign. The forms of abuse were, in the words of the report, ‘persistent, vile and shocking’; threatening violence – sexual or otherwise – and property damage. Intimidation and abuse were often found to be clearly targeted at certain groups, including women and ethnic minorities.

Lord Bew, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

The Committee’s Chair, Lord Bew, spoke broadly about the intentions behind the report and the purposes of the inquiry itself. He began by explaining that the inquiry took an independent, non-partisan look at all aspects of intimidation and set about explaining how the Committee understood ‘intimidation’, emphasising this to be behaviour which would make it less likely for individuals to participate in public life. Lord Bew stressed the Committee recognised that vibrant and robust debate is an intrinsic part of British political life, and that they recognised this to be one of its great qualities. However, they stressed something new was happening to ‘debase our public life’. Without intervention, the Committee were concerned that individuals – particularly those in marginalised groups such as women or ethnic minorities – would be discouraged from participating in politics. Overall, it was stressed that the Committee did not necessarily understand there had been a growth in this type of abuse but that the velocity at which it was being delivered had increased. Lord Bew stated that the Committee believed that the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was a turning point, and that the problem has been exacerbated and abuse has proliferated due to the rise of social media.

Lord Bew reflected on the Committee’s meetings with social media companies (Twitter, Facebook, and Google) during the inquiry, and the companies’ ‘half-hearted’ attitude towards tackling online abuse. This was mentioned with particular reference to the slow speed at which they removed abusive online content, despite their extensive resources, profits and data collection activities. Throughout the inquiry, the Committee felt that social media companies were not doing enough, and did not display sufficient seriousness in their discussions with an inquiry that had been called for by the Prime Minister herself. Continue reading

The future of referendums: what role should they play and how should they be conducted?

me-2015-large-e1485255919145.jpgTwo decades have passed since there was last a serious consideration of how the UK uses referendums. For this reason, the Constitution Unit established the Independent Commission on Referendums to examine whether and how the way in which referendums are regulated in the UK should be changed. Ahead of a public event in Edinburgh, the Commission’s research director, Dr. Alan Renwick, explains its terms of reference. 

The referendum is now entrenched as a part of the UK’s political system. The principle that a referendum is needed before some fundamental constitutional changes – notably in relation to sovereignty – are made has become well established. It seems likely that politicians will continue from time to time to find it useful to manage conflicts by proposing to put certain decisions to the people.

Yet, crucially important though referendums are, there has been little concerted thinking of late about how they should be conducted. Two inquiries carried out in the 1990s – by the UCL Constitution Unit’s Nairne Commission and by the Committee on Standards in Public Life – led to the creation of some basic rules, laid down in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. But these rules were always incomplete: for example, they say nothing about who is entitled to vote in a referendum. They are also now two decades old. Much has changed in the intervening years – not least through the rise of the internet and social media. Four major referendums have also been held in that period – on Welsh devolution (2011), the Westminster voting system (2011), Scottish independence (2014), and EU membership (2016) – from which lessons can be learned. Many observers have been dismayed by the conduct of those referendums, whether they agreed with the results or not. A careful review of whether we could do better is therefore overdue.

That is the task of the Independent Commission on Referendums, established by the Constitution Unit last autumn to examine the role and conduct of referendums in the UK and consider what changes might be desirable. Comprising twelve eminent individuals with diverse perspectives on referendums, including current and former parliamentarians, journalists, regulators, and academics, the Commission is due to report this summer. It is keen to hear as many views as possible, it is holding seminars in all of the UK’s capital cities. The Edinburgh seminar is the next in this series, co-hosted with the Royal Society of Edinburgh next Monday. Continue reading

Monitor 68: A constitution in flux

The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, was published today. The issue covers all of the major UK constitutional developments over the past four months, a period that has seen the EU (Withdrawal) Bill pass from the Commons to the Lords; the failure of talks in Northern Ireland; and a significant government reshuffle. Abroad, Ireland is considering a permanent constitutional change and Japan has seen a constitutional first as its current emperor confirmed he is to abdicate. This post is the opening article from Monitor 68. The full edition can be found on our website. 

The UK is experiencing a period of deep constitutional uncertainty. In at least four key areas, structures of power and governance are in flux. Screenshot_20180308.210141 (1)

The first of these, of course, is the nature of the UK’s future relationship with the European Union, to which the Brexit negotiations will shortly turn. The degree to which the UK continues to pool its sovereignty with other European countries depends on the form of that relationship: how far, and on what issues, the UK continues to adhere to EU rules, align closely with them, or follow its own separate path. Theresa May set out her most detailed proposals yet in a speech at Mansion House on 2 March, advocating close alignment outside the structures of the EU Single Market and Customs Union. On 7 March, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, published draft guidelines for the EU’s position. As before, this emphasises ‘that the four freedoms of the Single Market are indivisible and that there can be no “cherry picking.”’ What deal will emerge from the negotiations is entirely unclear.

The government’s preferred path will face stiff resistance in parliament too. In late February Jeremy Corbyn signalled that Labour wants a UK–EU customs union (an issue also central to the conclusions reached by the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit). Consequently the government now risks defeat on an amendment to the Trade Bill pursuing the same objective, tabled by Conservative backbencher Anna Soubry. Beyond that, an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill passed in the House of Commons in December guarantees that the deal between the UK and the EU agreed through the Brexit negotiations will need to be endorsed by an Act of Parliament in the UK. Brexit’s opponents are increasingly vocal and organised, and occupy a strong position in Westminster. The odds remain that Brexit will happen, but that isn’t guaranteed. Continue reading