Wales has put effective legislation in place to make the Senedd polls COVID-safe

For the sixth time since devolution in 1999, voters in Wales have the opportunity to participate in a Wales-wide election, with all 60 seats of the Welsh Parliament in play. Elections across the UK were postponed last May due to COVID-19, but the ones set for this spring look like they will go ahead. Toby James and Alistair Clark argue that Wales has taken significant steps to ensure that voters are able to participate in a safe and fair election.

To postpone or not to postpone? That has been the question facing elections scheduled for May across the UK. All of these contests are important, but those being held in Wales have a special importance for Welsh citizens. They will have the opportunity to elect all 60 members to the Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament). It will be the sixth general election since devolution in 1999 – but the first time that 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to take part.

The pandemic, however, has led to arguments about whether elections should be postponed. There is a health argument for postponement. Restrictions have been put on many aspects of life in order to prevent the spread of the virus. But the quality of the election can also be compromised by the pandemic. Restrictions on campaigning might be in place, such as bans on leafleting, which smaller parties have complained are unfair on them. So what should be done?

The evidence from around the world

As part of an ESRC-funded research project, we have been tracking how elections have been run around the world since the pandemic began, in collaboration with International IDEA and the Electoral Integrity Project. We have published case studies that have described the experience on the ground, alongside data on the measures put in place to make elections COVID-safe.

Many countries did postpone for a while. Elections have been postponed in at least 75 countries since last February. But at the same time, over 100 eventually held their contests. Proposals to postpone elections are at first glance associated with undermining the democratic process and denying citizens their right to vote. Postponements, as was shown in a recent article in Election Law Journal, are not all just power grabs by would-be dictators or incumbent governments. They can be for multiple different reasons, and there is a humanitarian case for postponement where there is a threat to human life. 

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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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Independent costing of election programmes: lessons from the Netherlands

In May 2017, the Constitution Unit began a project seeking to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns could be improved. The independent assessment of parties’ policy proposals could be one way of providing the public with high-quality, reliable information. Michela Palese outlines the debate on this topic and reports some initial findings from a research trip to the Netherlands, where such assessment of election programmes is a well-established feature of campaigns.

The Constitution Unit, with funding from the McDougall Trust, is seeking to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns could be improved. As outlined in a previous post, we are looking at three potential approaches: directly banning false or misleading statements; promoting the availability of impartial and high-quality information; and fostering citizen deliberation. My research is currently focused on the second type. In this blog post I first outline the state of the debate on one strand of this approach – independent impact analysis of manifesto proposals – in the UK and summarise existing practice overseas. I then relate early thoughts from a research trip to the Netherlands, where an independent institute assesses the economic and financial effects of parties’ election programmes.

Manifesto budgeting in the UK

The independent assessment of electoral programmes is not a novel idea in the UK. Since 2013, the Labour Party has advocated extending the remit of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to include pre-election costing of opposition parties’ policy proposals. Labour argues this would benefit public debate by ensuring that voters were properly informed and restore public trust in politics by improving policy transparency. Some Conservatives – notably, Andrew Tyrie, the former chairman of the Treasury Select Committee – have endorsed this idea. The government, however, has rejected calls for an extension of the OBR’s remit on the grounds that that the Civil Service Code prevents it from examining opposition parties’ policies and that it should abide by the principle of political impartiality. Furthermore, Conservative MPs have argued that it is necessary to protect the credibility and independence of this relatively new institution, and that drawing the OBR into the highly politicised environment of an election would be unwise.

In evidence provided to the Treasury Select Committee in 2014, the OBR’s chair, Robert Chote,  indicated support for extending its role. In a letter to Andrew Tyrie, he said that ‘independent scrutiny of pre-election policy proposals could contribute to better policy making, to a more informed public debate, and could help facilitate coalition formation when party programmes need to be reconciled’. However, he also highlighted some issues that would need to be resolved, such as the establishment of ‘clear rules’ for parties, the availability of adequate resources, and the need for cross-party support for the change.

Both external and Treasury reviews of the OBR cautioned against expanding its role, arguing that currently the risks in terms of resources and independence could outweigh the benefits. These judgements, combined with the pressing matters surrounding Brexit, seem to have put the debate to rest for now.

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