Threats to Abolish the Electoral Commission

02/09/2020 News

Fix, don’t abolish.

Amanda Milling MP, Co-Chairperson of the Conservative Party, last weekend issued a stark warning to the Electoral Commission: reform or be dismantled.

Milling, writing in The Telegraph, was repeating her party’s submission to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review of electoral regulation. 

She complained that the Commission’s remit was muddled and its structure unaccountable. She also chastised their stated desire to possess prosecutorial powers. Perhaps most striking was the desire to bring the Commission under direct Government authority.

Fair Vote UK agrees that the Commission needs to change – and we stressed this in our own submission to the review – but Milling’s main protests are disingenuous and circular in logic.

Firstly, The Electoral Commission is accountable. To Parliament, not Government. This is designed to ensure its non-partisan political independence. It reports to the Speaker of the House of Commons, is governed by the rule of law and is answerable to the courts. Independent regulatory bodies of this type are a common part of the UK constitution.

Ask yourself, would an electoral regulator directly answerable to No. 10 be trusted as independent?

Secondly, if the Electoral Commission does indeed have an ‘unclear rulebook’, then isn’t that the fault of the politicians that created it? The Commission was established by an Act of Parliament and could(/should) be reformed by one.

The Commission is not attempting to ‘give itself more powers without recourse to the Government or Parliament’, but rather asking for the right tools to continue doing its job.

Thirdly, why shouldn’t the Commission have prosecutorial powers? Many UK regulators have this authority. It is reasonable for the one that oversees our democratic processes to be the same. 

Milling claims there is a conflict of interest if the body which provides operational advice and drafts guidance on the law, then has a role as an arbiter and prosecutor of that law, despite this contradicting the function of most regulators. As the Commission argued in its own submission to the CSPL’s review, the guidance on its responsibility has allowed it – in the vast majority of cases – to foster a culture of compliance before the fact rather than punishment after.

If the Commission has ‘neither the capacity nor the competence to act as a prosecutor’ then we should instead be giving it the capacity, not floating the idea of abolishing it.

Every democracy in the world right now is grappling with the question of protecting democratic processes in the digital age. Why would we choose this moment to threaten our regulator with abolition?

Let’s support it and give it what it needs.