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Boris Johnson accused of ‘appalling’ attack on election watchdog

Exclusive: Former electoral commissioner David Howarth says UK government's new Elections bill is a sop to Brexiters that poses ‘serious threats’ to the fairness of future votes

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Martin Williams
6 September 2021, 7.38am
Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab visiting the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Crisis Centre in Whitehall, London,
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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

A former UK electoral commissioner has condemned the UK government’s “appalling” plan to restrict the independence of the elections watchdog.

Writing for openDemocracy, David Howarth said the Elections bill poses “serious threats to the fairness of all future elections in Britain”.

He added that "many Conservative backbenchers have been gunning for the Electoral Commission ever since it made various decisions they didn’t like in the aftermath of the Brexit campaign."

Howarth said the controversial bill – which is set to be debated in the Commons this week – could subject the Electoral Commission to potential political oversight from government ministers.

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The commission, which oversees UK elections, has been the subject of intense criticism by backbench Tory MPs. Many were unhappy about rulings it made surrounding the Brexit referendum campaign and have called for the watchdog to be reformed, or scrapped.

The Elections Bill would introduce mandatory voter ID and confer new powers on Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove over the hitherto independent Electoral Commission, giving government ministers greater powers to influence the commission’s work – as well as changing the way that smaller parties are able to campaign.

“It is difficult to express just how appalling this is,” Howarth, who was a Liberal Democrat nominee for electoral commissioner from 2010 to 2018, wrote. “Electoral Commissions, like the courts, do not exist to please elected politicians. They exist to protect free and fair elections, which they can’t do unless they are independent and free from the control of the ruling party.”

Howarth said that other aspects of the Elections Bill were also “potentially poisonous for the fairness of future elections” because of changes to so-called “third-party” campaigning.

NGOs and trade unions often register as third parties so they can support election campaigns by political parties. But the government now wants to change the rules – including giving ministers the power to stop certain types of organisations from being eligible.

Howarth, a former Liberal Democrat MP, said the proposals also limit the ability of smaller parties to form election pacts, which is often considered a possible way to remove the Conservative Party from government.

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I was an Electoral Commissioner. Boris Johnson’s bill will benefit the Conservative Party at the expense of British democracy

“The main beneficiaries are almost too obvious to state,” he said. “Like much of the rest of the Elections Bill, it is calculated to facilitate the entrenchment in power of the current ruling party.”

The government’s proposals follow an announcement by the Electoral Commission earlier this year that a formal investigation had been launched into how the refurbishment of Boris Johnson’s flat was funded, stating there were “reasonable grounds” to suspect multiple offences may have been committed.

The prime minister’s former adviser, Dominic Cummings, claimed that Johnson developed “possibly illegal” plans to get Tory donors to cover the refurbishment costs.

The Labour party has said that it would vote against the second reading of the bill in the Commons on Tuesday

Responding to Howarth’s comments on openDemocracy today, the Labour Party accused the government of a “brazen attack on our democracy”.

“The government is using the cover of the pandemic to sneak through their Elections Bill – a backwards Trumpian attempt to rig democracy in favour of the Conservative Party,” Cat Smith, the party’s shadow minister for democracy, said. “If passed, the legislation will reverse decades of democratic progress in the UK.

“The ability of trade unions and civil society organisations to campaign are vital components of free and democratic societies. The Conservatives’ bill is a brazen attack on our democracy and the freedom of people to organise politically.”

These changes look like something straight out of Putin’s playbook

The Elections Bill was seen by many as an opportunity to tackle dark money in politics. openDemocracy recently revealed that the Conservative Party had itself accepted £2.6m in donations from ‘shadowy’ groups with anonymous funders since Boris Johnson became prime minister.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life has warned that “unincorporated associations” could be used as “a route for foreign money to influence UK elections”.

Alex Runswick, senior advocacy manager at Transparency International UK, said the Elections Bill was a “wasted opportunity” which could have been used to clean up big money and foreign interference in politics.

“The irony of these changes is that while they are badged as necessary to tackle the threat of malign foreign interference, they look like something straight out of Putin’s playbook. Giving government the ability to ban whole categories of organisations from campaigning at elections, without adequate parliamentary oversight, is a slippery slope to authoritarianism we should well avoid.

“Giving the executive a dangerous amount of influence over an electoral management body is not something the government promotes elsewhere in the world, so one has to ask why it is being pursued here.”

The Elections Bill has also been criticised by Gavin Millar, QC, the country’s leading expert in electoral law. In June, he called the proposals a “backwards step” that would not be “healthy in a modern democracy”.

In an open letter published in the Observer on Sunday, Save the Children, Greenpeace, the trades union movement and others condemned the legislation as “an attack on the UK’s proud democratic tradition and some of our most fundamental rights”.

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