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Monday, June 27, 2022

Lords rally to protect independence of UK’s Electoral Commission | Electoral reform

Boris Johnson is facing another damaging parliamentary defeat on Monday over controversial plans that would give ministers new powers to determine the remit of the independent watchdog that oversees UK elections.

A cross-party group of peers is this weekend rallying behind an amendment to the elections bill that would strike out key clauses which, they believe, would seriously undermine the Electoral Commission’s independence and open the way for political interference in the conduct of elections.

The increasingly bitter row is threatening to further tarnish the government’s reputation over constitutional issues, following the unlawful prorogation of parliament in 2019, the Owen Paterson lobbying controversy last year and the ongoing “Partygate” scandal.

The main actors behind the Lords plan to neuter the bill and protect the commission’s independence are the crossbench peer Lord Judge, a former lord chief justice for England and Wales, the ex-Tory cabinet minister Lord Young of Cookham, the Lib Dem peer Lord Wallace of Saltaire and former Labour home secretary Lord Blunkett.

Blunkett told the Observer on Friday that the vote was a key moment in the defence of democracy against ministerial attempts to undermine it. “A free and fair election is the touchstone of any functioning democracy, which is why we [Labour] introduced the Electoral Commission despite having a large majority and the political ability to give Labour an advantage in future elections,” he said.

“Revoking that independence would set a dangerous precedent for current and future elections, and would give an unacceptable signal to the rest of the world.”

Pressure on ministers over the bill has been mounting for months, with the Lords having already defeated the government over plans to introduce compulsory photo ID for voters.

Lord Blunkett
David Blunkett said the vote was a key moment in the defence of democracy against ministerial attempts to undermine it. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The government insists the ID plan would reduce electoral fraud, while opponents say the problem is minimal and that such a draconian move would discourage many from voting.

Peers – with backing from the internationalist, pro-democracy organisation Best for Britain – have also forced ministers to remove clauses that would have allowed the government of the day to ban certain types of campaigners from participating in election campaigns.

If the government is also defeated on Monday over the Electoral Commission’s independence, ministers will have to decide whether to try to reinsert the plan (along with that for photo ID) when the bill returns to the Commons ahead of the Queen’s Speech on 10 May.

In a highly unusual move in February, the commission wrote a public letter to Michael Gove, the cabinet minister with overall responsibility for elections, saying its provisions were “inconsistent with the role that an independent electoral commission plays in a healthy democracy”.

It added: “This independence is fundamental to maintaining confidence and legitimacy in our electoral system.”

William Wragg, the Conservative chair ofthe Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee, also wrote recently to Gove about the bill, saying that allowing ministers to shape the remit of the independent elections watchdog would constitute “an unacceptable risk to the functioning of our democracy”.

This weekend, a broad coalition of organisations has put further pressure on Gove over the photo ID issue. The group, which includes the Electoral Reform Society, Fair Vote UK, Hope not Hate and Liberty, say in a letter to Kemi Badenoch, a minister in Gove’s department, that the plans risk seeing millions of people turned away from polling booths.

“We believe no voter should be prevented or deterred from casting their vote,” they say. “Making this change will help ensure that the over two million voters estimated to be without photographic ID do not face being turned away at the ballot box.

“In particular, it will at least partially address our evidence-based concerns that mandatory photo voter ID will discriminate against young people, older people and people with disabilities (who are less likely to hold such forms of identification).”

They are also calling for ministers to accept a Lords amendment that would allow various forms of ID, such as debit cards, to be acceptable proof identity. They also call for the Electoral Commission to remain independent: “A truly independent elections watchdog is important for giving voters confidence that our elections are free and fair. It is vital for our democracy that everyone who is entitled to vote can vote.”

The Electoral Commission has been criticised by pro-Brexit Tories for overreaching itself, particularly with its investigations into central figures in the Vote Leave campaign after the 2016 Brexit referendum. Gove is known to have been one of those keen to rein it in. The Cabinet Office has consistently maintained maintains that the bill is a “necessary and a proportionate approach to reforming the Electoral Commission while respecting its independence”.

An Opinium poll on behalf of Best for Britain today shows that 70% of people believe the Electoral Commission should remain fully independent of the government, including 79% of Conservative voters.

Naomi Smith, CEO of Best for Britain, said: “This authoritarian bill is an obvious attempt to silence critics and cripple opposition, and represents a premeditated plan to rig future elections in favour of those in government.”

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