WATCH: The Deputy Leader of the Lib Dems declines to rule out an electoral pact with Labour

26 Jun

The post WATCH: The Deputy Leader of the Lib Dems declines to rule out an electoral pact with Labour appeared first on Conservative Home.

Alexander Downer: Lessons for the Conservatives from the defeat of the Liberals in Australia

21 Jun

Alexander Downer is a former Australian High Commissioner to the UK and a former Australian Foreign Minister.

What lessons should Boris Johnson take from the defeat of the nine year old Australian Liberal Party government in last month’s general election?

There’s hardly a country on earth more distant from the UK than Australia – and there’s hardly a country more socially similar.

Over the last nine years our two countries have rejuvenated our relationship: we have a high-quality free trade agreement and in AUKUS an unprecedented military technology agreement.

Expect relations to remain close, but perhaps less intimate, with the new Australian Labor Government.

Australia and the UK face many of the same challenges: post-pandemic price rises, higher interest rates, shortages of labour, and the culture wars we’ve both imported from liberal arts faculties in the United States.

That’s why Australia’s recent election has lessons for the UK.

Let’s look at the Australian Labor Party. It went into the election with a dull but worthy leader; none would praise Anthony Albanese’s charisma but he isn’t scary. Labor campaigned with few practical policies.

It emphasised broad themes. For example, it would end debate about climate change by improving (marginally) Australia’s 2030 Paris target. This would mean slightly higher energy prices but no difference to the global climate. This didn’t matter to high income voters; it is the symbolism that counts.

Labor would do more on childcare and build great roads and bridges. How, why and where? No one really cared, it sounded good. Most of the extra spending to do these things would be “off budget”.

No one cared about that either; the Government had borrowed and printed record amounts of money through the pandemic and that didn’t seem to do any harm.

So Labor had a general theme: big, intrusive government is a good thing and the state has demonstrated through Covid that control of the public is good for everyone’s health. Labor surfed on the contemporary zeitgeist. They didn’t need to expose themselves to detailed policies.

So what about the Liberals, the conservative government? They’d been in government for nine years and in that time had changed their prime minister three times. Now doesn’t that sound familiar?

They’d been in government through the pandemic. They had closed the borders, locked down society, shuttered businesses, confined people to their homes, and spent more money than any government in Australian history.

Many people vote conservative because they believe in individual liberty, not state control. They believe government should protect the most vulnerable while the rest make their own judgements about risk and opportunity. And they believe the budget should be cautiously managed and taxes kept low so individuals can decide how to spend their hard earned money.

All those arguments, that philosophy which was the lifeblood of the Liberal Party, was drained from its body by the Covid pandemic. It was left pallid and listless, with a Prime Minister who wasn’t very popular.

Scott Morrison tried to argue he was fixing the economy: it was recovering well, the budget could be repaired and taxes wouldn’t increase.

But at the same time energy prices were rising and shopping was becoming more costly. Real wages were starting to fall. The great boast of conservatives that they are the best managers of the economy and that Labor would be a risk seemed hollow to many.

But worse, the Liberals had lost the debate on values. They were characterised as a harsher and more uncaring version of Labor. They didn’t make the case for the sort of society they wanted.

After nine years in power the country’s cultural institutions remained colonised by the left. The schools and universities preach left environmentalism and an Australian version of critical race theory. Educational institutions embed these concepts in the minds of young people.

The Liberal government blithely let it happen, and didn’t counter critical theory with its own laudable beliefs in the equal value of all human beings regardless of race, gender or sexuality.

In the two or so years Johnson and the Tories have until the next election they need to concentrate on sound economic management. They need to refine the argument that spending and borrowing causes inflation and increasing taxes drives down living standards.

Above all they need to change the tone of the national conversation rather than have the statist obsessions of the left define political virtue. They need to convince the public that the Left’s social and economic model is wrong.

The Liberal Party in Australia is starting to debate whether it should move to the left or the right. It’s a banal, dry argument. If it moves to become ‘Labor Lite’ it will shift national values and the national conversation still further Labor’s way.

It needs to engage in and win the debate about values and build its policy positions around those values. That’s the Australian lesson for the Conservatives.

The post Alexander Downer: Lessons for the Conservatives from the defeat of the Liberals in Australia first appeared on Conservative Home.

Sarah Gall: This Saturday, the Australian election rests in the hands of the independents

19 May

Sarah Gall is a political data scientist and membership secretary for the UK’s Conservative Friends of Australia. She previously headed up political and policy research for the Prime Minister of Australia.

On Saturday, Australians head to the polls after a fairly uneventful campaign. Neither of the major blocs – the incumbent conservative-leaning Liberal and National Party Coalition and the opposition Labor Party – have landed any substantial blow to their opponents.

Nor have either cut through to the electorate with any substantive policy that differentiates between the two.

This campaign has instead seen a greater focus on a number of conservative-held inner city seats being targeted by ‘teal’ independent candidates; reflective of the growing palpable disdain for the two major parties.

For British observers, the idea of independent or minor party candidates wielding any significant power or posing any threat to electoral success of a major party is foreign. But in Australia, where compulsory voting generally creates a narrow margin of victory, independents can and do hold the balance of power in both the lower and upper houses.

This is particularly problematic for a government seeking re-election for a fourth term and whose formal majority in the lower house had been wiped due to the redistribution of electoral boundaries (the abolition of a Coalition-held constituency in Western Australia and creation of a notionally Labor-held constituency in Victoria).

As the numbers currently stand, the Coalition requires a net gain of one constituency to win a majority and the Labor Party, a net gain of seven constituencies to win in its own right.

For the Coalition, there was at best an exceedingly narrow path to victory. This pathway however, has not been aided by successive scandals involving rorts and rape allegations, the feeling by many voters that Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister comes off as ‘cringeworthy’ and untrustworthy, or even the internal factional war within the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party which delayed the preselection of candidates in key seats.

For the Labor Party, who have not been taking the same hubristic stance as they did during the 2019 campaign, their gaffe-prone leader, Anthony Albanese, still remains behind in the polls as preferred prime minister.

This is despite a relatively less ambitious reform agenda than in 2019, which promised higher taxes and divided their own supporter base (particularly traditional blue-collar voters in coal-mining areas) with their un-costed climate change policy – and failure to address the potential job losses and energy price hikes it would create.

Pundits have therefore been led to believe in the very real possibility of a hung parliament in which Labor is required to negotiate a minority government with the independent and minor party crossbench.

This is made possible with Australia’s preferential voting system. Unlike First Past the Post, which does not require a candidate to attain a majority of the votes to win, Australia’s system requires voters to rank every candidate on the ballot paper in order of their preference.

If a single candidate does not achieve 50 per cent of the vote share from first preferences, the second, third, etc. preferences are transferred to the top two candidates until one candidate wins the majority.

This means that if a candidate has the highest number of first preference votes, they may lose after preferences are distributed to the final two, whereas they would have won under FPTP.

As a consequence of Australia’s preferential voting system, the election of independent and minor party candidates has become relatively common in Australia.

This has been particularly prevalent over the last 15 years, which have seen a bleed of first preference votes from the two major parties growing after an extended period of instability and leadership changes resulting in increasingly high levels of voter disenfranchisement.

One in ten voters is now preferencing independent or minor party candidates ahead of the two major parties.

With both Labor and the Coalition suffering from a dealignment of many of their voters, some estimate that the first preference vote for independent and minor party candidates could increase from a quarter of all voters to a third this Saturday.

It is therefore not surprising that the so-called ‘teal independents’ – a group of mainly high-profile and successful female candidates, backed by billionaire Simon Holmes à Court’s Climate 200 – have ceased the opportunity to attempt to sweep up these disillusioned voters.

These independents have run effective campaigns in primarily wealthy urban seats against moderate Liberal MPs, including in the Australian Treasurer’s (equivalent to the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer) electorate of Kooyong in Melbourne and former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s old electorate of Wentworth in Sydney.

They hope to entice voters with a commitment to tackle climate change and to bring in a series of integrity measures to hold politicians to account, while also making claims that their Liberal opponents are ineffective in standing up against their more-conservative colleagues who represent rural and coal-mining constituencies.

This tactic highlights an important and difficult position that the two major parties find themselves in: key policies, like action on climate change, seem no longer capable of uniting the entirety of their modern support bases.

Unless they can change this, challenges by minor factions will continue to become more significant, especially if Australians become accustomed to a larger crossbench and the usual warnings of chaos and instability start to lose their power.

David Willetts: How the Government’s voter ID plan risks a crisis in the wake of the next election

12 Apr

Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science.

The Elections Bill is going to have a big impact on how we conduct elections. It is where the political becomes very practical – since the way we all behave during elections is going to change.

There have been real threats to the integrity of elections, notably in Tower Hamlets where there were problems with postal ballots and abuse of council funds to favour particular groups of voters. Eric Pickles subsequently produced a good report on which many of the provisions in the Elections Bill are based.

There is a clear need to tighten security in key weaknesses in the system. Normally changes in election law are based on cross-party negotiations, but these changes are Conservative measures, so it is important they are based on robust evidence of the undeniable need for reform.

The Bill is a missed opportunity to up-date voter registration. There is an increase in the numbers of people who rent in the private sector and move around a lot. This makes it hard to get on the electoral register.

When I make the case that young people have a raw deal getting started on the housing ladder, one riposte is that if they turned up and voted then politicians would pay more attention to them.  But the real reason why young people are less likely to vote is not apathy, but that more and more of them are renting in the private sector which makes it become harder to get on the electoral register. The Government’s Bill is a missed opportunity for a major reform on access to it.

But there is a second problem too which is much more immediate and direct. The Government is proposing that voters have to provide photo ID before they can vote. The two main ones are a passport or a driving license, though some others are allowed too. If a voter doesn’t have any of these, they can be issued before the election with a specific new photo card by their local council.

This is a big change in the way we vote. There will be some voters who turn up to vote at the next election unaware that they need photo ID, and who will be turned away.

The argument is that we need to tighten security. And there are indeed voters who are surprised they don’t need photo ID at present. Our electoral system does have its problems, but voter personation does not appear to be a significant one – of 58 million votes cast in 2019 there were only 33 allegations of personation at polling stations leading to one conviction and one caution. Moreover, confidence in the security of the polling station is high – there is much more anxiety about postal votes.

The danger is that in trying to make the case we increase doubts about the electoral system. These risks were put very well by the Commons Public Administration Committee: ‘”introducing a compulsory voter ID requirement risks upsetting the balance of our current electoral system, making it more difficult to vote and removing an element of the trust inherent in the current system”.

The Government has narrowed down the proposals from Pickles, who envisaged a much wider set of ID documents: “there is no need to be over-elaborate; measures should enhance public confidence and be proportional. A driving licence, passport or utility bills would not seem unreasonable to establish identity.”

So this is classic gold-plating of regulation. It comes at a real expenditure cost – up to £180 million over ten years. It is hard to justify this measure if we want to cut public spending and reduce unnecessary regulation.

When photo id was first introduced in Northern Ireland, around 2.3 per cent of the electorate did not vote because of the requirement – equivalent to about 1.1 million people at the next general election. The next election day could be full of media coverage of people across the country being turned away from polling stations. There could be some constituencies where the majority is smaller than the numbers turned away. If Conservatives win by just a few seats, there is a real risk of a political and constitutional crisis. The next Conservative Government will have enough to deal with, and won’t be helped if it starts with questions about its legitimacy.

The Elections Bull should strengthen the integrity of our elections, but every measure should be proportionate to the risk. The number of disenfranchised voters could be much bigger than any plausible number of fraudulent votes.

Behind this there are issues of electoral advantage. There may be Conservatives who think this is all justified by such considerations. But the political advantage might not be actually what is assumed. Who are the voters who might not have photo ID because they have stopped driving and are not travelling abroad? Perhaps they might be wary of bureaucracy and dislike the hassle of getting a new ID card. One private study confirms the intuitive judgement that older Tory voters are most likely to be put off by the new requirement.

Ironically, when we opposed Labour’s ID cards one of the Tory arguments was that this was the thin end of the wedge, and if they were introduced they would next be needed for voting. But now Tory activists who may themselves be very sceptical are going to have to devote a lot of time to persuading similarly sceptical Tory voters that they need to go to the Town Hall to get a special voter ID card. Is this a good use of campaigning time?

Instead of making it harder to vote, imagine that instead we realised there is a political opportunity here. Those people in the private rented sector may be potential Tory voters if only they were offered a credible prospect of getting on the housing ladder. We should become once again the party that believed in spreading property ownership rather than presiding over a system where it is going backwards. Then we really would be true to Disraeli and extend the franchise to new voters with a fresh Tory message.

David Willetts recent tabled an amendment to the Elections Bill to widen the range of documents acceptable as proof of identity.

Peter Golds: When it comes to the “family voting” scandal, the Electoral Commission is more weak and muddled than ever

4 Apr

Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.

Democracy Volunteers is an independent organisation that observes elections without fear or favour. They are given accreditation by the Electoral Commission to undertake this work in the UK and issue verifiable reports after elections based on what they have seen. Their report on the 2019 General Election has this disturbing section on the growth of what is called “family voting.”

“Family voting continues to be biggest challenge to polling day integrity.”

They go on to say:

“Family voting occurs when two people enter a polling booth together, collude or oversee the casting of another’s vote. It is a clear violation of the secret ballot and something which is an offence. However, it persists in being either overlooked or dismissed as being acceptable.”

Note that this independent organisation is sufficiently concerned about this law-breaking that they not only highlight it but add that it is “either overlooked or dismissed as being acceptable.”

This has been the reality in recent years and, in this, both the police and the Electoral Commission have been culpable.

In May 2021, an elector complained that he was concerned that in the short period he was waiting to vote in his polling station, he saw two males accompany female electors into the polling booths as they voted. According to what the chief executive of the Electoral Commission has written on this site, this is breaking the law. The response by the police to the elector was as follows and I quote directly from the letter:

“In relation to the concerns you raised, enquiries cannot substantiate any allegation of that any influence was being exerted in the polling station nor any other electoral law being broken. The reported matter is now closed.”

This contradicts what the chief executive of the Electoral Commission, writes on Conservative Home. He says:

“Every voter has the legal right to vote in private. This law is in place to ensure that no one is pressurised into casting a vote in a particular way, or to have their ballot interfered with.”

As understood by every electoral act since 1872, if an elector is not voting in secret then the law is broken. In which case, how has the Metropolitan Police reached the conclusion that no law is being broken when complaints are raised that electors are being watched whilst voting?

I took this up with the officer concerned on September 1st, and wrote, quoting the law as it stands, asking how he could claim no electoral law had been broken, when it obviously had. My letter has joined my unanswered letters on electoral matters to the Metropolitan Police Service, although a reply has been promised.

In January, I met a senior police officer who informedme that the decision in this letter “that no offence had been committed” was based on advice from the Electoral Commission.

I was then sent an email by the police officer, naming the official from the Electoral Commission who had advised the police on this matter, in the following terms:

“We have checked with the Electoral Commission and have been informed that just because the voter process was not followed, in terms of secrecy (under S 66 (3) of the RPA 1983) it might not necessarily relate directly to an offence.”

The officer added that the Electoral Commission also wrote:

“The onus is on the individual who casts their vote to claim that secrecy has been breached or that they have been unduly influenced.”

That, of course, is completely incorrect, as the law is that every person in a polling station “shall maintain and aid in maintaining the secrecy of voting.”

As it happened, similar advice by the same named official had been sent to Tower Hamlets Council, who confirmed this to me. I wrote to Bob Posner immediately who responded saying:

“It may be the advice attributed to ourselves came from some other party; there may be confusion as the Commission would not state this.”

We therefore have the situation of the police and a local authority being advised that the electoral process, in terms of secrecy, not being followed might not necessarily be an offence, by the Electoral Commission, which is legally required to protect and advise on the electoral process. A fundamental of which, is the secrecy of the ballot. This is an extremely serious matter as an official of this regulatory body is changing the law relating to the secret ballot without recourse to parliament or the public. As both Tower Hamlets and the police referred to advice in the same terms, given to them by the same named official of the Electoral Commission, I enquired, for the second time “was this official acting alone or had he reported to anybody within the Commission?”

The response from Bob Posner is quite extraordinary although he writes I may have “reservations” regarding his response:

“That is not to say, of course, that there might always be a direct correlation between a situation were it may appear that a vote was not being cast in secret and an actual offence as set out in S66 of the Act. It could be the case that there would be a simple explanation as to why more than one person appeared to be in a polling booth at any one time without necessarily pointing to interference with a voter recording their vote”

This is the same Bob Posner who writes on Conservative Home “every voter has the right to vote in secret.” Sorry Bob, if more than one person is in a polling booth then the voter is not voting in secret and electoral officials and the police are failing in their duty if this is not stopped.

I responded and again asked how and why an official of the Electoral Commission is seeking to change the law regarding the secret ballot without recourse to the public or parliament.

I also reminded Posner of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as incorporated into the founding charter of the United Nations, which refers to the right of all persons to partake in elections conducted by a secret ballot. This can be found under Article 21 – 3 of the declaration:

“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote.”

The secrecy of the ballot was raised whilst the House of Lords was considering amendments to the Elections Bill. There was unanimity across the chamber with respect to protecting the secrecy of the ballot and it should be noted that Lord Adonis (Labour) read into Hansard the provisions of secrecy included in the 1872 Act which have remained enshrined in UK law ever since.

This was followed by a ministerial letter from Kemi Badenoch MP expressing concern with regard to infringements of the secret ballot. The letter goes on to say:

“No elector should ever be subject to intimidation or coercion when voting. It is never acceptable for men to direct women how to vote – irrespective of any (outdated) cultural activities.”

The minister reiterates the legal foundation of the secret ballot and calls on the Electoral Commission and the police to advise how the rules relating to secrecy are to be enforced consistently.

This will require the Electoral Commission to issue unequivocal guidance to the police as to how protecting and maintaining the secrecy of the ballot must be paramount in a democratic election. This will require the Commission to withdraw the guidance their official circulated earlier and which I have quoted above. I would also expect that the Electoral Commission itself strives to protect the secrecy of the ballot; this means there is no reason for more than one person to be in a polling booth at any one time: unless this is a polling official assisting a blind, disabled, or illiterate, voter under the procedures in accordance with successive RP Acts.

A voter not being alone in a voting booth, is not voting in secret, therefore the law is being broken.

In view of the importance of this matter and the differing responses the Electoral Commission has given to the public and others, I have three times asked the following questions regarding the author of the faulty guidance that has been circulated:

“Was the (named) official acting on his behalf or that of the Electoral Commission in advising the police and Tower Hamlets as to his interpretation of the secret ballot?

Was this matter discussed at any level within the Electoral Commission?

If so, what body discussed this matter?

If this (named) official were acting alone and without recourse to any board or committee within the Electoral Commission, by what authority does he act to advise on a fundamental change to historic election law?”

It will be interesting to see if, at the third attempt, I obtain an answer to these questions. Those who know me, are aware that I can be persistent.

Importantly, I look forward to the police and the Electoral Commission working to ensure that the secret ballot remains secret.

Bob Posner: Let’s be clear. “Family voting” is not allowed. The secret ballot is protected by law.

29 Mar

Bob Posner is the Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission

As we approach the polls taking place across the UK on May 5th, people will have a number of personal choices to make, for instance, whether to vote, to do so by post, or in person at a polling station, and who to vote for.

But some aspects of voting are not subject to individual preference: they are determined by the law.

The secrecy of the ballot is one of those. This means that every voter has the legal right to vote in private. This law is in place to ensure that no one is pressured into casting a vote in a particular way, or to have their ballot interfered with. Enshrined now in the Representation of the People Act 1983, it is an important element of our democracy.

Concerns have been raised on this site, by Cllr Peter Golds of Tower Hamlets Council, about family members entering into the same polling booth, sometimes termed “family voting”. Some reports have suggested there is a lack of clarity about this issue. In fact, it could not be clearer: your vote is yours alone.

Voters have the clear right to cast their ballot in private. Attempting to influence how another person votes, or stealing someone else’s vote, is breaking the law.

The Electoral Commission provides guidance to electoral administrators and polling station staff, which makes it clear that voters should be supported to vote in secret and free from influence.

People voting in polling stations are not permitted to be accompanied by another person, other than in cases of specific need, such as for voters with a disability or sight loss. Children are also allowed into the booth with their parents, but should not be allowed to mark the ballot paper.

Anyone with any concern about voter interference or fraud at a polling station should raise it with staff immediately.

While the UK has very low levels of proven electoral fraud, public opinion research confirms it is an issue that concerns voters. Voter fraud risks undermining the strong tradition of free and fair elections in this country.

In the run-up to this year’s elections, the Commission is running a public awareness campaign in partnership with Crimestoppers, which highlights what constitutes electoral fraud and aims to empower people to protect their vote and encourages people to report concerns.

Whilst it is for the police to investigate allegations of electoral fraud, the Commission works closely in support of the police, prosecuting authorities and local authorities to prevent, detect, and take action.

Many readers will be aware that Tower Hamlets is an area that has heightened interest and concern around fraud in recent years. We are in regular contact with the local authority electoral services team, and polling stations staff are being briefed on the need for vigilance, in line with our guidance. Extra signage and staffing measures will also be in place at the polls to make clear that voters must enter polling booths alone. These are just some of the practical and tangible steps being taken to safeguard the integrity of the May elections.

Thanks to the enshrined legal rights of voters, and the efforts of the wider electoral community to preserve the security of polls, the UK has a long tradition of maintaining a trustworthy electoral system, where abuses are the exception.

So, on 5 May voters should feel confident in the integrity of the system and remember that their vote is theirs alone.

To vote in the elections on 5 May 2022, eligible voters in England, Northern Ireland and Wales must be registered by midnight on 14 April, and by midnight on 18 April in Scotland. Register to vote here.

Peter Golds: How “family voting” in Tower Hamlets is undermining democracy

10 Mar

Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.

I have previously written about the increasing problem of the police failing to enforce the historic law relating to the secret ballot. For years now, there has been increasing concern about electors, usually women, being watched and even supervised whilst voting, to the surprise and concern of other voters. Democracy Volunteers, which is accredited by the Electoral Commission to observe polling, recorded that in a recent election in Tower Hamlets they witnessed “family voting” in 58 per cent of polling stations they attended, which came to 19 per cent of those they observed voting.

During the GLA election last year, a resident formally complained to the local returning officer and the police that in the space of a few minutes in his local polling station he saw two different men in a polling booth watching female electors cast their votes. The police response, three months after the complaint was registered, concluded “In relation to the concerns you raised, enquiries carried out cannot substantiate any allegation that any influence was being exerted within the polling station nor any other electoral law being broken.”

This is completely incorrect as every single election act since 1872 has reaffirmed the primacy of the secret ballot. Section 66 of the 1983 Act, which this officer was using as the basis of his response, is headed “Requirement of Secrecy.”

I wrote to this officer regarding this matter and received the same response. I responded to this, by letter, quoting the requirement of secrecy in Acts between 1872-1983 and, having taken advice, asked the following question “Have I misunderstood the Law as quoted from the 1872 and 1983 Acts or, despite the elector approaching officials at the polling station, is there an absence of evidence?”

I am told that this officer is currently working on his response to my question. I now know why there has been a six month delay in replying to my letter. As well as the police, I also contacted the electoral commission. I asked them, as I did the police “if a person is standing alongside a voter in a polling booth watching this person cast their vote, do they accept the secret ballot is no longer enshrined in law”?

Before moving on to the various responses that I received from both sources, the law which has remained unchanged from 1872 is that blind, disabled and illiterate electors may be assisted to vote. However, this is to be undertaken in controlled circumstances by the presiding officer and recorded by the presiding officer.

Bob Posner of the Electoral Commission, responded to me saying that ”someone accompanying another person into a polling booth would bring into consideration whether there may have been an offence under S66.”

Section 66 is headed “Requirement of secrecy.” If there is a requirement of secrecy when voting, how can Posner say “there may have been an offence?”

Posner then goes on to remind me that the correct course of action is “to report this to the police.” This is, despite my confirming to him that the police claim that they “require evidence that influence was being exerted” and in the absence of this, no other electoral law is broken.

In responding, I again referred to the Requirement of Secrecy pointing out that an elector cannot be voting in secret if watched by another person. I asked, “am I misunderstanding the law” and if not, “why is the Metropolitan Police requiring proof of “influence” before they consider an offence has taken place.”

In response, Posner confirmed the secrecy of the ballot is enshrined in law but then added “for the police to follow up on any potential breach they would require a specific allegation relating to an offence, eg: “ that a voter had been interfered with when recording their vote, or that the voter had been induced to display their ballot paper after marking it,” Again, this sidesteps the overall objective of the secret ballot; that an elector casts their vote in secret.

The letter concludes with information of the Electoral Commission campaign “your vote is yours alone.” If the Electoral Commission believe that this is possible whilst electors are casting a ballot, not in secret but under observation, then their “Your vote is yours alone” campaign is meaningless.

After receiving this response from the Electoral Commission, I met a senior police officer who informed me verbally and later by email that the police have been acting “on advice from the Electoral Commission and this advice is “the onus is on the individual who casts their vote to claim that secrecy has been broached or that they have been unduly influenced (S115 of the 1983 Act).”

Following this meeting, I wrote again to Posner with details of both the conversation and the email adding that nowhere in any legislation from 1872 to date is it the onus of the elector to claim that secrecy has been broached. I reiterated that, from 1872, all legislation and Statutory Instruments require election officials’ election agents and the police to protect the secrecy of the ballot..

I was even more surprised to see the reference to Section 115 of the 1983 Act which concerns the use of (or the threat of) ‘force, violence or restraint’ or the infliction of ‘temporal … injury, damage, harm or loss… to induce or compel that person to vote. This goes well beyond protecting the secrecy of the ballot within a polling station and an elector being overlooked whilst voting by another person.

I then asked the following questions:

  • When was the decision made by the Electoral Commission to advise the police on the ballot in the terms that I have quoted above?
  • Which body or person(s) within the Electoral Commission approved and initiated this advice being given to the police?
  • Why were neither the public nor Parliament consulted on this advice, which, fundamentally alters the secret ballot, and the protection of the secret ballot, as established since 1872 and which has remained unchanged in all subsequent legislation?

The response from Posner is quite extraordinary. My questions are put aside but he then writes “the MPS indicated to you that advice from the local authority and the commission is that the onus is on the individual who casts their vote to claim that secrecy has been breached, but this does not appear to be advice that the Electoral Commission would or has given.” That is not what I was told either verbally or in writing by the police and verbally by Tower Hamlets Council.

Suddenly, the Electoral Commission is reverting to the law that has existed since 1872 regarding the secrecy of the ballot. This then brings into question the conversation and email from the police and indeed a similar email to Tower Hamlets electoral services, both of whom stated that they had received, by email, contrary advice to that Posner stated was the position of the Electoral Commission.

Lord Hayward, who takes an interest in these matters and has witnessed “family voting” whilst acting as a polling agent in Tower Hamlets, is seeking to introduce an amendment to the Elections Bill to reaffirm the primacy of the secret ballot. This was reported in the Sunday Telegraph and the Electoral Commission are quoted:

“The existing guidance to returning officers and their staff makes clear that voters should be supported to vote in secret and free from influence.”

Are they denying the existence of the guidance that both the police and Tower Hamlets Council say that they have received? I have written to Posner and will publish his response.

Now for the BBC intervention in this matter. The Corporation publishes numerous briefing papers on its website. In 2015 they published a paper on Britain’s first secret ballot.

At the end is a contribution from an academic, in this case, Professor Steven Fielding, who is extremely supportive and active within the Labour Party and takes a contrarian view of the secret ballot.

The Professor suggests that voting by secret ballot may no longer be necessary:

“When you vote it’s a private action but it has enormous public consequences.

“You might think that if people are voting secretly, then they are voting for their own selfish interests. Would it not be worth considering voting in public again – would that be more likely to make us vote as members of our community? “Before, you couldn’t police it properly to protect people from intimidation, but you could do that now.

“Maybe we don’t need the secret ballot any more.”

Can you imagine public voting in front of the assembled ranks of Momentum? Had Donald Trump suggested this, the BBC would clear their schedules for attack programmes. Nearer home, we have a left-wing Labour supporter proposing that a fundamental of democracy be abolished yet it remains on the BBC website as a briefing on electoral matters for several years.

James Blagden: The Red Wall and Blue Fade. Why the main challenge to the Tories remains in the Midlands and North.

28 Feb

James Blagden is Chief Data Analyst at Onward and author of their new report Another Brick in the Wall: Where is the battleground at the next election?

Politics has rarely been more volatile. A year ago, the Conservatives held a double digit poll lead and people talked of Boris Johnson being in power for a decade. Today, the party sits several points behind Labour, with an MRP analysis over the weekend suggesting that half of the Cabinet could lose their seats if an election were held today. The pendulum may well swing back and forth again before the next election.

The challenge is to step back from the day-to-day froth and understand the deep currents reshaping British politics. These forces were exposed in 2019, when the Conservatives won a historic victory on the back of the fall of Labour’s “Red Wall”, overturning decades – in some cases even a century – of Labour dominance. It was a seismic realignment of the British electorate that delivered a historic fourth Conservative term and plunged Labour into existential crisis.

It feels like a long time ago now. With the Conservatives slumping in the polls, a cost of living crisis, and ‘partygate’ eroding trust in the Government, it is the Conservatives who are in crisis. Commentators are getting excited about the prospect of the Tories losing the next election. And following the shock loss of Chesham and Amersham, the focus has started to turn to the traditional Tory heartlands in the South where the Liberal Democrats hope to turn the ‘Blue Wall’ yellow.

In Onward’s latest report, published today, we analysed voting and demographic data from 2019 to work out where the Conservative Party will be most vulnerable in the future, and where it might be able to make further gains given the right strategy. And the truth is that talk of a Southern collapse is premature.

Our analysis suggests that nearly two-thirds of future battleground seats are in the North of England. Only 20 per cent are in the South. So, while the concern over Esher and Walton, Guildford, and Wimbledon is understandable and real, it is also overhyped.

This is not to say that the new Conservative coalition is baked in. It is possible that millions of voters could switch back to other parties. There are 31 seats in the North, Midlands, and north Wales could fall to Labour if the party fails to deliver for those who ‘lent’ their votes to the party in 2019. And that is not counting the dozens of other marginal seats that the Conservatives could lose if their popularity remains low.

But the challenges of political realignment also present opportunities.

There are 36 constituencies in the North of England where the Conservatives under-performed demographic model predictions, suggesting that the Red Wall still has further to fall. This list includes high-profile names like Ed Miliband’s seat of Doncaster North and Yvette Cooper’s seat of Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford. These should be Conservative target seats at the next election.

In contrast to the widespread volatility in the North, continued realignment only puts 12 southern seats at immediate risk, including constituencies like Guildford and Hendon. This is because most Tory seats in the Home Counties are about as Conservative as you would expect given the demographics of the area. They have more homeowners than average, more older voters, are less urban, and so on. Other parties will struggle to make much headway here, without any swing against the Conservatives.

So, most of the action in 2024 will likely take place in the North and Midlands, rather than the South of England. The Government should focus its attention accordingly.

But this does not mean that the Conservatives can become complacent in the South. After all, taking their traditional voters for granted was Labour’s undoing in 2019. Over the longer-term, parts of London and the South East have been drifting away from the Conservatives for years.

The number of seats affected is substantial. There are 35 constituencies, for example, where the Conservative vote has fallen by 10 percentage points more than average since 2015. That’s about one in every ten Conservative seats. This ‘Blue Drift’ is greatest in the Home Counties, including high-profile seats like Witney and Maidenhead, both held by former Prime Ministers.

Some of this drift is a function of post-Brexit realignment. Seats like Dominic Raab’s Esher and Walton have only recently turned away from the Tories, where the Liberal Democrats gained an astonishing 28-points in 2019. We see a similar pattern across most of Surrey, Berkshire and Oxfordshire.

The other half of this story is actually part of a 30-year trend. That the Conservative Party has been polling steadily worse in London and Merseyside is well-known. But Conservative support in areas like East Sussex and Cambridgeshire has been slowly ebbing away since the late 1980s.

If these trends continue, dozens of Conservative strongholds in the South East of England will become more marginal over time.

Could the Conservatives be outsmarted by a Lib-Lab pact? Both Keir Starmer and Ed Davey have suggested they would be open to an informal arrangement. But our analysis shows it would not on its own be enough to ‘get the Tories out’, because of the low starting position both parties find themselves in.

Even if a pact played out perfectly based on existing vote share – so, in seats where Labour came second, all Liberal Democrat voters backed the Labour candidate, and vice versa – the Conservatives would still win 321 seats. The Conservatives would still be by far the largest party in Parliament. It might actually leave the Tories a small working majority, depending on the number of abstaining Sinn Fein MPs.

The combined strength of Labour and the Liberal Democrats in this scenario would only by 257, which is worse than Jeremy Corbyn achieved on his own in 2017. So those who think that tactical anti-Conservative voting is the key to Labour’s victory are just plain wrong. To get anywhere near Number 10, Keir Starmer would need to win back voters in the Red Wall and focus less on the progressive left.

A bigger threat to the Conservatives would come from a resurgent ‘NewKip’ right-wing populist party. Research has already shown that the Brexit Party cost the Conservatives 25 extra seats in 2019 by siphoning off voters that would have otherwise voted Conservative. In effect, if the Brexit Party had stood down in more Leave-voting Labour seats, Boris Johnson’s majority could have increased from 80 to an eye-watering 130.

Looking forward, what could be the impact of disaffected 2019 Conservative voters switching to a new party that occupied the same political niche as UKIP or the Brexit Party? We used our 2019 election survey to work out where in the country this NewKip party would be strongest and how many votes that would cost the Conservatives.

At worst, ‘NewKip’ would cost the Conservatives 53 seats, which would completely wipe out their majority and deliver a hung parliament. The Tories would lose some of their more iconic 2019 gains like Dewsbury, Bridgend and North West Durham, as well as some marginal seats in the South. So, although a credible challenger has yet to emerge – Reform UK are only polling at three per cent – the Tories should watch that space with a keen eye.

If the Conservative Party wants to win again in 2024, the immediate focus should be cementing their gains in the North and Midlands and delivering on promises made at the last election. By leaning into the political realignment, and continuing their advance northernwards, the Conservatives could manage to stave off a disastrous 1997-style defeat.

Peter Golds: When the secret ballot is abandoned, so is democracy

18 Oct

Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.

The heading of this article is surely a statement of the obvious. The pseudo elections that took place under Communism were notorious in that those who chose to vote in secret became targets of suspicion and persecution by the authorities.

In 1872, one hundred and forty nine years ago, the Ballot Act was passed to secure the secret ballot. This Act has never been repealed but has been amended. The Act is often known as the Secret Ballot Act. It was introduced to ensure electors could vote without fear of retribution from their employers, landlords, or indeed their families.

Section 2 of the Act is headed “poll at Elections” and describes the process of voting. It states:

“..the voter having secretly marked his vote on the paper, and folded it so as to conceal his vote, shall place it in a closed boxed in the presence of the officer presiding at the polling station.”

This is exactly the process which is expected to be followed today. Note the word secretly.

Section 4 of the Act is headed “Infringement of Secrecy” and commences “Every officer, clerk and agent in attendance at a polling station shall maintain and aid in maintaining the secrecy of voting in such station.” The section provides guidance as to how secrecy should be maintained and concludes with the following criminal sanction. “Every person who acts in contravention of this section shall be liable, on summary conviction before two justices of the peace, to imprisonment for any term not exceeding six months, with or without hard labour.”

This is absolutely explicit and forms, or should form, the bedrock of voting in a democracy.

In recent years, there has been the growth of what is now described as “family voting” in polling stations. It too often involves males supervising women voters in the polling booth. I have previously referred to a report by Democracy Volunteers who are registered with the electoral commission and monitored polling stations in Tower Hamlets during the 2018 local elections. The report is here. It can be seen, under D in Question 9, that the observers record that they witnessed “family voting” in 58 per cent of polling stations that they had attended which came to 19 per cent of these they witnessed voting.

This is not new. It is a matter that has caused numerous complaints to the authorities and, to be fair, local electoral staff do their best to prevent in. This sometimes resulting in threats and intimidation to themselves.

In May of this year, a Tower Hamlets resident complained to both the police and the local returning officer that whilst waiting to vote in his local polling station at approximately 12.05pm “I noticed on two separate occasions two people were in polling booths together with the male “influencing” the female’s vote.” He goes on to record that the first incident was uninterrupted but when he observed the second incident staff “reminded the couple of voting arrangements.”

The police response, dated 19th August, over three months after the recorded incident, came from the Operational Head of the Special Enquiry Team responsible for “assessing allegations of crime relating to electoral fraud and malpractice and other offences under the Representation of the People Act 1983.”

One would have hoped that the Operational Head of a team of police officers tasked to investigate electoral fraud and malpractice would be briefed on the full range of election law.

I mention this because here is the final sentence of the letter to the elector:

“In relation to the concerns you raised, enquiries carried out cannot substantiate any allegation that any influence was being exerted within the polling station nor any other electoral law being broken.”

I immediately turned to the 1983 Act and looked at Section 66 “Requirement of Secrecy.”

This commences:

“Every Returning Officer and every Presiding Officer or clerk attending a polling station;

1(d)shall maintain and aid in maintaining the secrecy of voting.

3. No person shall –

(a) Interfere with or attempt to interfere with a voter when recording his vote.

(d) Directly or indirectly induce a voter to display his ballot paper after he has voted so as to make it known to any person the name of the candidate for whom he has or has not voted.”

In fact, in the 111 years between 1872 and 1983 the wording was scarcely changed. It remains the same with regard to the penalties for infringement apart from replacing the option of “hard labour” with a fine.

There is no need to describe the secret ballot because, as I have pointed out, voting in secret is unchanged since 1872. I received a similar letter from the same police officer and on 1st September responded quoting the provisions of both the 1872 and 1983 Acts. I concluded that the original complainant had seen the law broken on two occasions when he saw two people in a single booth, one of whom was voting. This was reported to the presiding officer at the polling station and subsequently the police.

The senior officer responsible for election law in the Metropolitan Police Service says no law has been broken. I have asked him two questions. Have I misunderstood the Law as quoted from the 1872 and 1983 Acts or, despite the elector approaching officials at the polling station, is there an absence of evidence? As so often in dealing with the Metropolitan Police on election matters, there has been no answer.

It would appear that the Metropolitan Police Service have now decided that some electors will not have the right to vote in secret and even when there is legislation to ensure they have that right. The expectation for anybody to vote in secret is a fundamental of democracy. The Metropolitan Police, should be defending and enforcing the Law and if not, give a reason why they are not defending this fundamental. Other residents have had a similar brush off from this officer when complaining about crowding and intimidation at polling stations on May 6th..

In August, a by-election took place in the Weavers Ward of the borough. There were numerous reports and complaints of “family voting.” In one polling station in Shipton Street, Bethnal Green, the police were called twice, once at mid-day and once just after 9pm to dispel groups of aggressive men surrounding women as they attempted to enter to vote. All polling stations were subject to these groups through most of the day, although they were at their most threatening in Shipton Street.

We are now just seven months away from the Mayoral and council elections in this borough. There is little evidence that the police have learned anything from previous elections.

 

Snap guide to this session’s Government legislation 7) Elections Bill

8 Aug

The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year.  But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.

So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, on most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.

5. Elections Bill

The Bill’s long title consumes roughly 100 words, enough to show that it aims to fulfil a variety of purposes. These include “provision about the administration and conduct of elections, including provision designed to strengthe the integrity of the electoral process”.

And it duly divides into seven parts, which in turn cover: the administration and conduct of elections; overseas elections and EU electors; the Electoral Commission, regulation of expenditure, disqualification of offenders for holding elective office, information to be included with electronic material, and general provisions (including eleven schedules).

Responsible department

The Cabinet Office – so Michael Gove will probably present the Bill at Second Reading.  But the Minister in detailed charge of the Bill will undoubtedly be Chloe Smith, Minister for the Constitution and Devolution.

However, Julia Lopez, one of the Cabinet Office’s nine Commons Ministers, is responsible for “supporting Cabinet Office primary legislation in the Commons”, so she may get a share of the action in committee and, perhaps, at Second Reading too.

Carried over or a new Bill?

New.

Expected when?

Currently under consideration.

Arguments for

The Bill is essentially a tidying-up measure that aims as the Government sees it to “keep our electoral system up-to-date, including tighter new laws to stamp out the potential for electoral fraud, make our politics more transparent and further protect our elections from foreign interference”.

The core of the Ministers’ case is that our electoral system needs “sensible safeguards for postal and proxy voting, which will see party campaigners banned from handling postal votes, put a stop to postal vote harvesting and make it an offence for a person to attempt to find out or reveal who an absent voter has chosen to vote for”.

Arguments against

There is opposition to the Government’s plan to make the Electoral Commission more accountable to Parliament (or clip the wings, if you prefer), and claims that the measures relating to foreign interference will “fail to stem the flood of secretive donations shaping our politics”.  But objections to the Bill will be concentrated on the proposal in Part One for photo voter ID for elections in Great Britain.

The nub of these is that the measure is unnecessary because voter fraud is low.  Those who hold this view include Ruth Davidson and, within the Conservative Parliamentary Party, David Davis.  Labour adds that the main aim of the Bill is voter suppression – to depress turnout from lower income voters who don’t have photo ID such as passports.

Politics

The Bill may well draw rebel Tory backbench amendments from MPs who believe that the Electoral Commission is fundamentally flawed, and needs abolition rather than reform, as well as Opposition-led ones on the voter ID and donor-related measures.  On that last point, claims of government and, more specifically, Conservative corruption will always find a sympathetic audience among the public.

On the first point, the Government’s counter-argument is that the absence of voter fraud isn’t proved by the paucity of prosecutions (see articles on this site by Steve Baker and Peter Golds); that the Electoral Commission says that voter ID trials in 2018 “worked well”, that photo ID is used in Northern Ireland with difficulty, and there will be a new scheme for voters in Great Britain who don’t have it.

Controversy rating: 6/10

We mark the Bill lower than we might because it is of the kind that will cause more controversy among the minority that is politically engaged than with the majority that is not.  And add as a footnote that it would be ironic were an effect of the Bill, as John Rentoul has suggested, is that the Conservatives will lost out from the voter ID provisions rather than otherwise.