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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