The Electoral Commission (ElCom) is an institution with a lamentable record of failing to fulfil its role as guardian of our political system. After so many contrary and arguably politically partisan decisions in recent years, one has to ask: Who guards this guardian?
Its chairperson Jenny Watson, as a former women’s rights activist and former member of Liberty and Charter 88, has a strong left-wing influence in her background. Why Watson was ever considered an appropriate candidate for such a politically sensitive role is open to question. She began in the role in 2009, appointed by the Labour Government under Gordon Brown’s premiership, which perhaps explains a great deal.
What is less easy to understand is why her tenure was renewed under David Cameron’s premiership, when her first period in office came to an end in December 2012. By then, ElCom’s propensity for getting it wrong was becoming well known and most of the problems had occurred under Watson’s leadership. She is in post until December 2016, at a salary of £100,000 p.a. for a three-day working week.
During that time the details of the EU membership referendum are to be confirmed and ElCom will have a major influence over the running of the campaign. Will it be balanced or will it favour those campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU? The recently published draft European Union (Referendum) Bill contains no reference to a ‘purdah’ period in the run-up to polling day, which would allow the government and EU agencies free rein to make public announcements designed to influence the vote.
Certainly, those in favour of staying in are already ahead of the game in being given the opportunity to fight for a ‘Yes’ vote on the question: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?’ Those in favour of leaving are already disadvantaged by having to fight for a negative, not least because the underlying question that trumps everything – ‘Who do you want to be governed by: The UK Parliament or the European Union?’ – is not being asked.
On the question of partiality, ElCom has previously been taken to task due to its failure to pursue the Liberal Democrats over a £2.4 million donation from a criminal. It was sharply criticised by the Parliamentary Ombudsman, who described its failure to act as ‘maladministration’. Contrastingly, at taxpayers’ expense, it pursued Ukip right up to the Supreme Court over £367,000, from a donor who had forgotten to register as a voter, in a single year. Sensibly, the Supreme Court ruled against ElCom.
ElCom had to weather considerable criticism over its management of the 2010 General Election. There were allegations of fraudulent postal voting in Tower Hamlets, shortage of ballot papers in Liverpool (as many as 20 per cent of voters are alleged to have been unable to vote), and failure to foresee problems at polling stations, which found themselves over-run with voters as the 10pm deadline approached. The 2015 General Election put ElCom right back in the firing line over some familiar problems, but also some new ones.
Eventually it took the High Court to sort out the long-running allegations about voting fraud relating to the election of the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, who was dismissed in April this year after being found guilty of electoral fraud and intimidation. The Metropolitan Police are now considering a criminal investigation. Unfortunately, it seems that little has been learned: dozens of postal votes for the General Election were sent to an uninhabited block of flats that had been boarded up for months while it underwent refurbishment. None of the people who are supposed to have applied for these votes lives in the building and one of them is dead. Voting fraud in this part of the world has been repeatedly drawn to the attention of ElCom but with little visible result.
ElCom has also overseen a major change in the system for registering voters, which now has to be done on an individual basis, rather than by household. The changeover went horribly wrong, with the number registered to vote falling by some 900,000 and the list of voters in England falling by 2 per cent. Despite a last-minute rush to meet the 20 April deadline, it is estimated that of the 45 million people who were eligible to vote on 7 May, as many as 7.5 million were not registered. It is hard to see why ElCom was so slow to react to this problem.
There are also an unknown number of expats gnashing their teeth because they could not vote in the General Election. Hundreds of expats in Australia, Singapore, France, Brazil and the US, who applied in good time to vote, found their ballot papers arriving in the post on election day, with only standard UK postage on them or they did not arrive at all. ElCom is promising to look into it. One hopes they will be more effective than they have been in Tower Hamlets.
ElCom has a dreadful record for allowing confusion or ‘passing off’. In the European Parliamentary Election last year, almost a quarter of a million people voted for an unknown political party called ‘An Independence from Europe.’ This new name, approved by ElCom, with the slogan ‘UK Independence Now’, appeared on the ballot paper, well above the more well-known Ukip. It caused great confusion and claimed tens of thousands of votes. At least two seats went to parties that would not otherwise have been elected. ElCom also had to apologise to the Rigby family for thoughtlessly allowing the slogan ‘Remember Lee Rigby’ to appear on European Election ballot papers in Wales.
Earlier this year it was brought to the attention of ElCom that comedian Al Murray was publicly promoting the name of a new political party, ‘Free United Kingdom Party’ or FUKP, and that it might cause problems in connection with his candidacy for Thanet South. Despite the potential for confusion with the Ukip campaign for the same seat, ElCom actually went out of its way to contact the comedian to encourage him to register his party. It wasted no time in approving the name when Murray complied (though it rejected the unpleasant acronym). This is one of ElCom’s most contrary and naïve rulings, given that Murray so obviously targeted Nigel Farage and used the campaign to promote an event in which he was performing on election night.
In one of its characteristically vapid statements, ElCom said: ‘We concluded that this party name, if used on a ballot paper, was not likely to lead to electors confusing it with another registered party.’ But voting can be a stressful experience, particularly for the elderly and those who are not politically savvy. Some voters might well have been confused by two similarly named political parties appearing on the ballot paper.
How much longer will ElCom be allowed to blunder on before someone at Westminster grasps the nettle? ElCom needs major reform to ensure that its impartiality is not constantly being questioned and that it genuinely protects the interests of the electorate and the integrity of our electoral system.
Lord Vinson is a life peer in the House of Lords and a British businessman.