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.

Elliot’s taste

21 Feb

Like many readers of this site, I’m a Conservative Party member.  Like a smaller number, I’m an Association patron.  Both require giving money.  Requests for more duly follow.

And with good reason. The Party leadership worked out some while ago, roughly during the period when Andrew Feldman was Chairman, that it is hazardous to rely on a few givers of million pound-plus sums. For the donors may decide that they no longer wish to give on that scale.  Or eventually be barred from doing so.

Since declarations under £7500 don’t have to be declared, it’s impossible to know what proportion of any political party’s funds these raise. Though I’ve been told that the amount of money raised by the Conservatives from such gifts have been increasing in recent years.

This humdrum flow of requests for money helps to put yesterday’s Sunday Times splash into perspective.  “Revealed: the wealthy donors with PM’s ear,” it said.  The details were new (in other words, the names of those who attend an “advisory board”).  Its essence was not (the board’s existence was revealed last summer).

The Sunday Times referred to “a leak of several thousand documents”, and presumably there will be more to come in due course.  The paper is not revealing its sources – quite rightly too if it doesn’t wish to – and speculation would lead down a blind ally.

At any rate, the story contains a quote from Mohammed Amerci, a member of this board during the pandemic, who has since fallen out with the Party and is highly critical of the project.  What are the facts?  The starting-point is the existence of forums that allow wealthy donors to meet party politicians.

Labour has the Rose Network Chair Circle, which has invited donors to meet Keir Starmer, details of which are available online. The cost of membership is £5,000 a head per annum.  The Conservatives have the Leader’s Group (£50,000) and the Treasurer’s Group (£25,000)Michael Gove addressed the former last year.

No difference in principle, then.  The advisory board is higher in price (it costs £250,000 a head) and may be different in practice.  It is alleged that members are asked for advice as well as money, but no documentary evidence for the claim was cited; nor is it clear that such requests, if made, are unique to advisory board members.

It was reported that advisory board members lobbied Ministers directly, but it would be surprising if no member of other forums has ever done so, regardless of party.  Certainly, there is nothing new about senior Ministers being asked to attend events to “sing for their supper”.

As I say, the Party’s drive for more small donations puts this push for more large ones in perspective, and three points follow – beside the obvious one that since Labour is in a glass house when it comes to donor clubs, it isn’t well placed to throw stones (and that’s before we get to the turbulent story of the party’s relationship with the unions).

First, the members of the advisory board are unlikely to feel that they’re getting what they want. As I’ve written before, “consider the planned rise in Corporation Tax, the effective re-nationalisation of the railways, and the shift in infrastruscture funding from south to north.”

“Plus net zero, industrial strategy, and the Conservative commitment to spend more, more, more on doctors, teachers and nurses. Much of this goes down well with, say, the CBI but badly with Tory donors, who tend to be blue in tooth and claw”.

Indeed, if advisory board members are hoping for results, there’s scant evidence that they’re getting them.  The Sunday Times report specifically referred to property, construction and big tobacco.  The former is fighting a rearguard action against a Government ambition for a smokefree England by 2030.

As for construction, the irresistible force of the housing lobby is meeting the immovable object of voter resistance. Liberalising planning proposals met mass resistance from the Conservative backbenches – and that was before the Chesham and Amersham by-election.

If my first point is that donors don’t always get their way, my second is that there’s no reason why they shouldn’t – sometimes, even often.  Unfashionable though it may be to say so, the clash of interests in Parliament, and their peaceful resolution through debate, is integral to liberal democracy.

Those Tory forums are part of one of those interests, capital, making its view known to Conservative front benchers. The latter are Ministers because voters made them so, in the near-landslide of the 2019 general election. So far, so good for the advisory board.  But there is a sting in the tail.

Which is that those who give the Party £25 a year, the standard membership fee, have no less an interest in its future than those who give £250,000 a year, the advisory board fee.  This brings me to my third point, which may be less helpful to CCHQ than my first two.

Namely, that we know a bit about what party members think, at least if the ConservativeHome panel is anything to go by. Seven in ten believe that money raised by activists shouldn’t help fund the leader’s private costs (with specific reference to that Downing Street wallpaper). Half want more control of how the money that they raise is spent.

It follows that a big slice of members, if our panel is representative, ask as ConHome has sometimes done: whose party is it anyway?  If an advisory board is to raise six figure sums, should the party leader effectively control how these are spent? And might it not be wiser to declare membership, rather than have it leaked?

At any rate, the trend in recent years has been for the leader to appoint an MP to spearhead campaigning and a friend to raise money.  The latter in Boris Johnson’s case is Ben Elliot, who has got the advisory board up and running.  I suspect our panel’s take is that what it gets up to is fundamentally a matter of taste.

On which point, Elliot will be more aware than anyone else, or at least should be, that Labour has its sights trained on him.  As Andrew Gimson wrote in his profile of the Party Chairman for this site, Elliot would not have arranged the seating plan which seated Robert Jenrick next to Richard Desmond at a party fundraising dinner.

But “because Elliot is in overall charge of CCHQ, he still incurs criticism when things go wrong”, Andrew continued.  “His insouciant manner suggests to those around him a refusal to contemplate the danger of scandal.”  Elliot later apologised to the 1922 Committee Executive.

If taste fails, rules step in: that at any rate is the lesson of the John Major years.  And the more rules there are, the more regulators there are – the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Electoral Commission, the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards…

And the more regulators there are, the more power falls into the hands of those we don’t elect rather than those we do.  But if voters don’t like the people they elect to govern them, they don’t seem to care for those they don’t elect, either – at least, not if Brexit is anything to go by.

By the same token, they may not like how the Conservative Party is paid for, but they would like paying for it themselves even less.  And funding Starmer, too.  Not to mention Nicola Sturgeon.  But when private funding becomes tainted as illegitimate, state funding steps in.  Elliot is playing for higher stakes than he may appreciate.

Wakeford should resign and fight a by-election in Bury South

23 Jan

This week, Guido Fawkes reminded us that Christian Wakeford, the Labour MP for Bury South, co-sponsored and voted for a private members bill in 2020 that would “enable the recall of Members of the House of Commons who voluntarily change their political party affiliation; and for connected purposes.” Wakeford’s Law would have caused a by-election to be triggered if, in a relevant constituency, a petition demanding it, gathered ten per cent of the eligible electors over a period of eight weeks.

Steve Baker, the Conservative MP for Wycombe, spoke against the proposal – as he felt it didn’t go far enough:

“I am in favour of full recall—I prefer to avoid total recall—albeit on a threshold that must be high enough to avoid vexatious political activity. However, I would like to have full recall, by which I mean recall without conditions.”

Anyway, surely in the circumstances that have arisen, Wakeford should resign and fight a by-election. An opinion poll shows a big majority believing this should take place. I haven’t heard any BBC interviewers raise this interesting but unhelpful question with Wakeford or any of his fellow Labour politicians.

Yet surely it’s a subject that must have been discussed by Wakeford during the weeks of clandestine meetings with Labour representatives while plotting his defection. With the current climate, Labour should be well placed to win a by-election in Bury South.

So why do they not seem to relish the challenge? By-election campaigns cost money and Labour is reported to be “on the verge of bankruptcy.” Would the Bury South Constituency Labour Party select Wakeford as their candidate? By-elections, under Labour’s rules, do give power to Labour’s National Executive: “in the case of an emergency, it shall take whatever action that may be necessary to meet the situation.” Would imposing Wakeford be justified as an “emergency” on the basis that the CLP would not acquiesce otherwise? One for the lawyers to ponder, I suppose.

If such hurdles were overcome the by-election campaign might still prove problematic. Bury South has a large Jewish community.  Angela Epstein, one of its members, has written powerfully in the Independent about her sense of betrayal:

“As our new MP, Wakeford swiftly established himself as a sensitive and understanding supporter of a Jewish community still reeling from the Corbyn years. He understood what we had suffered. It makes his willingness to cross the floor even more unpalatable. Yes, Keir Starmer has shown credible and declared intent to stamp out antisemitism within his party. But equally this was a man who campaigned for Corbyn in 2019 and would have worked with him had he become prime minister. During his own leadership campaign Starmer was also reluctant to criticise his predecessor, since he remained popular among the party membership…

“Of course Wakeford’s defection isn’t just a stinging act of disloyalty for his Jewish constituents. Many residents of Bury South will have voted for the 38-year-old candidate as part of the Boris boom – keen to ensure that Labour, with its chaotic agenda of stirring class conflict, ruinous big state ideas and quasi Marxist politics, didn’t have a chance. And yet it hurts so much for Jewish people because we looked to Wakeford as our protector. An assured parliamentary voice who could stand up for this community.”

Labour’s continuing failure to deal with anti-semitism is demonstrated not far from Bury with the disturbing situation in Blackburn.

By signing up as a Labour Party member, Wakeford has undertaken to “accept and conform” to the Party’s principles – including that it is a “socialist” party. Thus far Wakeford has explained his switch to the Labour Party as being prompted by his antipathy to Dominic Cummings, Owen Paterson, and Downing Street drinks parties. But when did Wakeford convert to socialism? Presumably, it took place within the last year – as on January 18th 2021, he wrote:

“Labour – bunch of c****.”

Another puzzle is that a month ago Wakeford was among the 99 Conservative MPs who voted against the Plan B restrictions. Is it not a bit odd that he’s now switched to Labour, who complained the measures did not go far enough and imposed tighter restrictions in Wales? Wakeford might also face disobliging queries about his expenses with the revelation that he was in the top ten MPs for spending on travel and food costs charging the taxpayer £13,899 for this in the last financial year.

So one can see why Wakeford has evidently decided against a by-election. The question is whether it should be his decision. It is a wider question of political accountability. If MPs are sentenced to be imprisoned for more than 12 months they automatically have to stand down. That is reasonable. But in other cases, a recall mechanism should apply. (I would like to see it for Police and Crime Commissioners as well.) I suppose we could still have various standards committees and commissioners to carry out investigations and publish their findings. However, the power would be with the electorate.

Our politics is drifting towards politicians being too beholden to officialdom. The Electoral Commission imposes bureaucratic burdens on political parties while failing to robustly and impartially uphold the democratic process. Peers complained this week of a “sinister” threat to freedom of speech by the House of Lords Commissioners for Standards. Supposedly we are eagerly waiting for a civil servant called Sue Gray to decide if the Prime Minister should be sacked.  Of course, she has no authority to do anything of the kind. She may give a verdict on whether the “gatherings” in the Downing Street gardens were within the official definition of work events allowed under the regulations – or were parties and broke the rules. Ministers and Shadow Ministers continuously take to the airwaves to speak of Gray with great reverence and assure us of their “high regard” for her. But it is the MPs who decide who is Prime Minister. We decide who the MPs are. Those fundamentals should be reasserted and strengthened. The retreat into the prissy obfuscation of politicians relying on officials for moral authority has gone too far. We need to take back control. Giving the people of Bury South their say would be a good start.

There is a case against the Electoral Commission, but the Prime Minister can no longer make it

10 Dec

Boris Johnson is a twofold curse on the Conservative Party’s efforts at serious structural reform. Where it is likely to anger his base, as with housing reform, or simply not interest them, as with Civil Service reform, he is inclined not to see it through in the first place.

But perhaps worse is that when he does take up the baton, he too often appears to be doing so for the lowest of reasons.

Take the Owen Paterson fiasco. Any principled concerns Tory MPs might have had about the way MPs are overseen have now been completely overshadowed by what looked to the public like a straightforward attempt to bend the rules to get a colleague off the hook.

Not only has this likely poisoned the well for the sort of parliamentary reform Conservatives were looking at, but it has actually given those who want to increase the power of modern HR culture and unelected officials over MPs an opening to push their case.

It’s shaping up to be a similar story with the Electoral Commission. There is definitely a case for reform here; we noted as far back as 2018 that the EC might be unfit for purpose. Why should a body with such power over the conduct of our democracy not be more democratically accountable?

There is also the wider point that institutions which date back only to New Labour do not automatically qualify as the essential buttresses of British democracy some try to portray them as.

But in the wake of ‘wallpapergate’, the Prime Minister is not a credible carrier of that message. The EC found against him for soliciting donations to redecorate Downing Street. If there was a time when he might have brushed this off, it has passed. Once again, a worthwhile and principled reform agenda risks looking like the personal revenge of a cornered premier.

There isn’t much to be done about it for now, short of once again abandoning the reform agenda (short-sighted and unwise) or replacing the Prime Minister. But the Government should be mindful of this effect and adjust its strategy in other areas accordingly.

If Dominic Raab proceeds with his plans for Interpretation Bills, for example, I suggested this morning that he should avoid starting with a head-long assault on Miller II (the prorogation judgment) and instead choose something less controversial, in order to give the first Bill an easier passage through Parliament and help to iron out kinks in the new procedure.

Perhaps I ought to have added that it would aid the credibility of the move if the target was a case or cases that preceded Johnson’s premiership, and thus weren’t defeats from him personally.

Viva the vaccine passport rebellion

10 Dec

What a week it’s been for the Government. With the furore around whether or not Downing Street had a party – or three – the Electoral Commission’s verdict on Boris Johnson’s wallpaper and the arrival of his and Carrie Johnson’s baby daughter, the media has had no end of things to write about.

Unfortunately for the Government, much more negative attention is on its way, due to a growing Conservative rebellion around Coronavirus vaccine passports, which, on Wednesday, Johnson announced would be implemented in England (in what some have called a “diversionary tactic”). 

Although Conservative MPs have been generally supportive of measures to combat Coronavirus, from the Emergency Powers Bill to curfews, something about the passports has pushed them to their limits.

Tens of Conservatives, including Dehenna Davison, Andrew Bridgen and Johnny Mercer have tweeted their disapproval of vaccine passports (which have been introduced in Scotland and Wales), with William Wragg, a member of the Covid Recovery Group, being so brazen as to call for Sajid Javid to “resign” over the latest measures. Expect a mega rebellion on passports on Tuesday, when they’ll be voted on, with talks of up to 100 MPs rejecting the plans.

The Government’s justification for passports has been the quickly-spreading Omicron variant, which has prompted it to unleash its “Plan B” set of restrictions. This includes asking people to work from home when they can from next Monday, as well as making masks compulsory in many indoor settings; two requirements that have received much less, albeit some, criticism compared to passports.

Part of the reason why MPs may have become more concerned about these is the events elsewhere in Europe, which have brought into sharp focus how illiberal restrictions can become. Austria’s decision to make vaccines mandatory has been a wake up call – to say the least. The more cynical will say that some MPs are simply using passports as an opportunity to kick Johnson when he’s down, having disapproved of his policies for a while.

My own view, in regards to the introduction of vaccine passports, is one of mild disbelief that the Government ever contemplated them in the first place, never mind that Johnson said there should be a “national conversation” on mandatory jabs. 

There seem to be far more arguments against passports than those in favour (many of which are based on emotional reasoning – “well I like the idea” – and a desire to conform – “well France has done it”). They are divisive, literally separating society into two; don’t completely stop transmission; no one knows where the cut off point for such passports should be (flu?) and will make life complicated and miserable, with large economic consequences. The Night Time Industries Association has already said passes have caused a 30 and 26 per cent trade drop-off in Scotland and Wales, respectively.

Perhaps the most worrying thing, though, is we simply don’t know the long-term impact. Passports are one giant experiment, which we have discussed with all the seriousness of whether someone should change bank accounts.

In general, vaccine passports seem to symbolise a wider issue with the Government, in the Covid wars, which is that it hasn’t completely decided how to be “Global Britain” yet. Post-Brexit it has the opportunity to show the world a different approach to the pandemic; one that respects civil liberties, and isn’t so far away from Sweden’s more relaxed strategy. Instead, we seem to be “Herd Britain”, constantly keeping an eye on what France and Germany are up to, with a view to emulating them.

Either way, something has changed in the equation. The crucial question next week is how the Government groups the votes on “Plan B”. If MPs can vote on vaccine passports as a lone category, it makes it far easier for the idea to be shot down. On the other hand, if vaccine passports, masks and working from home are placed into a single “Plan B” vote, the Government might find all of its plans in disarray; as Bridgen warned “I will vote against any legislation that sees [passports’] introduction“. That, or it’ll be easier to sell to Labour, which is pro restrictions. Whatever the case, we need a cut off point as to how far measures can go; viva the vaccine passport rebels, I say.

Sarah Ingham: Under Johnson, the Marie Antoinette of our times, a Labour government is no longer unimaginable

10 Dec

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

For someone who aspired to being world king, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has turned out to be more like France’s Louis XV, who predicted ‘Après moi, le deluge’.

“After me, the flood” has nothing to do with the Government’s obsession with carbon net zero. Let’s hope this fixation reached its zenith at last month’s preening eco-fest, COP26, also known as Davos on the Clyde. Instead, the failures of the reign of King Louis (1710-1774) paved the way for the French Revolution of 1789. Whether the monarch was anticipating or was indifferent to the chaos which would follow him is usually only of academic concern.

Close to the second anniversary of the 2019 election victory which delivered a landslide majority of 80, the Prime Minister’s own seeming indifference to the plight of the people of this country is only rivalled by that of Louis’ granddaughter-in-law, Marie Antoinette, to her subjects. Let them eat cake? Let their children, like 13-year-old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, die alone. Let their frail elderly be unvisited in care homes. Let their weddings be postponed. Let their churches, temples, synagogues and mosques be closed.

Patterson, Peppa Pig, parties at No 10 and Plan B. During the past few weeks, Johnson has not so much crashed the car into a ditch as sent it over a cliff where it somersaults to the ground before exploding into a fireball. Never mind unforced, his errors appear so wilful, it has to be asked whether he is up to the job of being PM – or indeed even wants it.

“There is no Plan B” – you wish. On Wednesday, more Covid-related restrictions on daily life were unveiled. The timing was reminiscent of the United States’ 1998 bombing of a factory in Sudan, assumed to be Bill Clinton’s very own diversionary tactic to distract from the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

The Conservatives are supposed to be the party of business, enterprise and wise stewardship of the economy. The Institute of Economic Affairs suggests the latest Covid measures will cost Britain £4 billion a month. And the Government clearly views the hospitality sector as below the salt, despite contributing almost £60 billion in gross value added to the British economy in 2019. Hammering it in the run-up to Christmas for the second successive year could be the final straw for many weakened businesses. Let them go bust.

There should be no Plan B. Omicron might well be a live vaccine, bestowing natural immunity following a mild cold-like infection. Instead of viewing the variant as a possible blessing, we’re back to more masks, tests, vaccines passports and Working From Home. As ConservativeHome revealed earlier this week, WFH has turned out to be less than optimal for the Foreign Office or for desperate Afghans.

The Government’s response to Covid has been flawed from the get-go: disproportionate, panicked and heedless of collateral damage. It would have been better off consulting Mystic Meg than Professor Neil Ferguson and his ilk. SAGE should have been sacked long ago. Its advice has not only crashed the British economy but failed to prevent 146,000 Covid-related deaths.

The massive structural flaws within the state apparatus which the pandemic has revealed would have been a toxic inheritance for any leader. Post-Brexit Britain can no longer use Brussels as an excuse for mismanagement and burdensome red tape. The country needs a leader with the vision and drive to implement wholesale reform, not least of the Civil Service. We need another Thatcher to solve problems like the NHS: instead we get Johnson who ineffectively throws money at them, raising the tax burden to its highest and most unConservative level since the Second World War. Let them be poorer.

Anyone who has been out on the campaign trail with Johnson will testify to his charisma and the feel-good he conjures up among voters on the rainiest of days. However, his 2019 victory was not down to his celebrity or distinctive cartoon-like silhouette which fascinates small children or to his jokes.

Getting Brexit done was about more than Britain leaving the EU. By opting for Leave in 2016, voters signalled their demand for wholesale change within this country, only to be ignored and insulted by the Remainer political establishment – that includes you, Keir Starmer – who wanted to cling to the status quo. The Red Wall turned blue two years ago because Boris seemed to be on its voters’ side: instead of despising them, he got them.

Those voters are now asking where is Plan A. And whether it includes indulging the eco-loons of Insulate Britain, putting out the welcome mat for illegal migrants, ripping out gas boilers and imposing £1.4 trillion in costs to get the country to net zero. Where are Conservative principles in all this? Governing by focus group is not governing at all.

Blowing up voters’ goodwill, no Jeremy Corbyn to bash, Brexit done … MPs are surely weighing up whether Johnson is an asset or a liability. Next week’s result in North Shropshire should tell them.

The parties at No10 are the ultimate in toxic do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do hypocrisy. This is a different order of magnitude from Barnard Castle and the handsy Hancock trysts. Voters are not going to forget or forgive. For many, it’s too close to dancing on graves.

Johnson’s always shaky moral authority is ebbing away. There is already a suspicion that the PM and his wife stretched the rules (or was it the guidance?) last Christmas Day. Should they have stuck two fingers up at voters by going along to the knees-ups at the No10 frat house, it’s game over.

A three-week lockdown has turned into 21 months of state inference in our daily lives, with our hard-fought freedoms trashed by sub-prime officials and ministers. Liberty is the core Conservative value. It would be poetic justice if the Prime Minister were brought down by the statist rules he introduced.

The hubris, self-indulgence and lack of seriousness in Downing Street is typified by a melodrama over a makeover, involving the Electoral Commission in choices about wallpaper.

Thanks to the current chaotic regime, a Labour government is no longer unimaginable. Does Johnson care, or is he actually wanting to spend more time with his new family and with making Netflix documentaries? Après moi, le deluge.

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.

Daniel Hannan: We should thank, not demonise, the patriots who donate to political parties

4 Aug

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

The Financial Times is becoming slightly unhinged in its dislike of Tories. The paper’s loyalties have always been mercurial: over my lifetime, it has endorsed all three parties. Having enthusiastically backed Tony Blair, it gave some support to the Coalition and then to Theresa May. But Brexit seems to have tipped it over the edge. Even when the alternative was Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, it could not bring itself to back Boris.

Now it has taken to insinuating that donations to political parties are somehow dodgy – an odd stance for a newspaper that still sees itself as a defender of the private sector. For several days, the FT has been running news articles, features and comment pieces that vaguely suggest – without actually alleging any impropriety – that there is something suspect about the Conservative Party’s receipt of private money.

Property donors provide one-quarter of funds given to Tory party,” was Friday’s headline. Oh dear, we’re meant to think, not property donors! Not those johnnies who put roofs over our heads! It is a curious feature of our present discourse that, despite an acute housing shortage, developers can be presented as being almost on a level with arms dealers or pornographers.

The following day, it fired its second barrel: “Elite Tory donors club holds secret meetings with Johnson and Sunak,” was its lead story, followed up by pages of analysis inside.

Gosh. Secretive, eh? Bad enough that they’re property developers. But these, we learn, are furtive property developers. How did the FT find out about the donations of this sinister cabal? It turns out that they’re all registered with the Electoral Commission. Anyone can look them up. The organisation that happened to do so is an outfit called Transparency International whose Director of Policy (and evidently the driving force behind this report) is Duncan Hames, who is married to the former Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson and was himself the Lib Dem MP for Chippenham from 2010 to 2015.

Nothing wrong with any of that, obviously. Indeed, I have always had a soft spot for Swinson, who served her party with diligence and good humour, and whose dignified reaction when the SNP took her seat was a model of how to do it. But this was hardly a disinterested piece of research, as the FT must have known.

It is worth stepping back for a moment and reminding ourselves of some basic principles. First, there is nothing wrong with individuals giving money to things they support. I’m sure most ConHome readers give to charity, and I’d be surprised if most of us don’t also pay subs to our local Conservative Associations. If wealthier people make proportionately larger donations, God bless them. It must surely be better for the rich to support whatever causes they favour than to spend their cash on themselves.

We are, of course, rightly suspicious of oligarchy. I wouldn’t want a system where big donations bought policy changes, and neither would you. Such things can happen, even in Britain. Most of us remember the 1997 Bernie Ecclestone affair, in which the Formula One magnate gave Labour a million pounds in exchange for exempting his races from the ban on tobacco advertising. Fewer of us, for some reason, remember the 2009 cash-for-amendments scandal, in which two life peers asked for payments in return for moving legislation.

By any definition, both these were cases of straightforward corruption – that is, of politicians being paid to do things they would not otherwise have done. But such cases are extraordinarily rare in this country. Bad behaviour by our MPs tends to be rather more Pooterish, involving bath plugs or fumbling adulteries.

There is no suggestion that any Conservative donor has tried to buy favours. Indeed, far from seeking advantages for their own firms, these benefactors seem to be pushing for open competition. As the FT reports, with a hint of corporatist distaste, “the top donors are Thatcherite free marketeers, and they have no qualms about giving Boris a piece of their mind.” If so, good for them.

Which brings us to a second basic principle. Private donations are admirable whether or not we happen to agree with the cause being supported. One thing I have learned from social media is that there is an almost total overlap between people’s definition of “corruption” and their definition of “views with which I disagree”.

To see what I mean, consider the way Left and Right respectively treated the Koch brothers and George Soros. Depending on which side you were on, one was an example of high-minded generosity while the other was a conspiracy against the public weal.

ConHome readers should admire donors from all sides – philanthropists like Lord Sainsbury of Turville, for example, who, alongside vast charitable contributions, has given millions to Labour, the Lib Dems and various pro-EU outfits. We should likewise salute Keir Starmer’s ambition to increase the proportion of his party’s spending that comes from private contributions.

It must be better to live in a world in which rich people give their assets away. The alternative is a world in which we are forced to support political parties with our taxes. Quite apart from the tax bill being high enough already, this strikes me as morally repugnant. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”

What applies to donors applies even more to the people who volunteer to fundraise for parties. Here is a truly thankless job. Make the slightest slip and you’ll be treated as a crook. Indeed, the chances are that you’ll be hounded and accused whatever you do. In 2012, the then Conservative treasurer, Peter Cruddas, had to resign following newspaper accusations that he had been peddling cash for access. He sued for libel and won substantial damages, but he was not reinstated and, nearly a decade on, the original story was still being used to keep him out of the House of Lords.

Cruddas comes close to living up to John Wesley’s injunction to “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can”. Brought up in a council house in Hackney, he has set up a £100 million scheme to help kids from deprived backgrounds. Had he not also backed the Conservatives, he’d have been in the Lords years ago.

A similar campaign is now being waged against the party’s current Co-Chairman, Ben Elliot – again, a successful businessman who has given up a great deal of time to take on a role for which the only payment is abuse. He is the real target of the press campaign. The original allegations in the FT prompted a bizarre story in The Sunday Times which seemed to be based around the idea that there was some impropriety in his arranging for a wealthy donor to back one of the Prince of Wales’s charities.

Again, does anyone think it is a bad thing for successful people to volunteer as Elliot is doing? If he raised cash for Prince Charles’s good causes, we should applaud him. If he raises cash for the Conservatives (and he does, with extraordinary effectiveness) we should likewise applaud him.

We are in danger of driving public-spirited individuals out of politics altogether. The assault may come in the form of negative press, as with Cruddas and Elliot. It may come in the form of actual legal harassment, as with Alan Halsall, the big-hearted businessman who was pursued for three years by the electoral authorities after acting as the treasurer of Vote Leave (all the allegations were eventually shown to be nonsense, but the stress and the financial burden of those three years can never be undone).

A combination of partisanship and purse-lipped puritanism threatens to make politics a no-go area for patriots who want to support a cause bigger than themselves – whether on the Left or the Right.

So, just this once, let’s say it. Thanks to everyone who is prepared to act on principle. Thanks to all those who put their money where their mouths are. And thanks, especially, to those who give up their time and risk their reputations to make the system work. Without you, our public life would be colder, meaner and smaller.

Does the Climate Change Committee have too much power?

7 Jul

Last month, it was reported that “Ministers ‘should urge public to eat less meat’’. Such is the view of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) – which has advised people to consume less dairy and meat in order to help the UK meet its environmental targets.

For many Brits, the very existence of the CCC will come as a surprise – never mind that it is now offering guidance on what to eat. But the public is likely to become much more aware of it, and its recommendations, because of the Government’s desire to meet its Net Zero targets (set by the CCC), and the publicity about their costs

The CCC has also had some high profile critics, such as Nigel Lawson. In a letter to Parliament in 2019, he claimed that the CCC’s recommendations were not accurate and reliable and, furthermore, that “it is essential that Parliament has time to scrutinise new laws that are likely to result in astronomical costs.” Did he have a point?

First of all, it’s worth explaining the CCC – and its history. The body was established under the Climate Change Act 2008, which legally binds the Government to reducing UK carbon dioxide emission “by at least 80 per cent by 2050, compared to 1990 levels”.

It stipulates that the Government must create a committee in order to achieve this – hence the CCC. The CCC website says it’s an “independent, statutory body” that aims to “report to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for and adapting to the impacts of climate change.”

As of 2017, Lord Deben has been Chair of the CCC. He was previously the Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal and now holds a series of roles, such as Chairman for Sancroft International (a sustainability consultancy) and Valpak (a leading provider of environmental compliance).

Other Committee members include a behavioural scientist, Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate and an environmental economist. One member has recently had to step down because of a potential conflict of interest (more here).

While the CCC has kept quite a low profile, it has provoked mixed reactions – with some sharing Lawson’s cynicism about its role. Ben Pile is the author of the Climate Resistance blog and sceptical about the costs of Net Zero.

He tells me that in the era the CCC was created, “there was a tendency towards technocracies (such as Tony Blair’s decision to grant the Bank of England independence) and to push important decisions to those.” He calls this “the post-democratic model of politics”.

Pile adds that parliament, unsure of how to reach its own environmental targets, “essentially gave all of its power in this domain to the CCC”. The problem with this, however, is that “when there are debates about climate change and targets, no one votes against anything.” He adds that “they might as well not have a debate”, even when discussing trillions of pounds, and pushing an agenda that the “public just aren’t interested in.”

Andrew Montford is Deputy Director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, an all-party and non-party think tank, “which, while open-minded on the contested science of global warming, is deeply concerned about the costs and other implications of many of the policies currently being advocated.”

I ask Montford if the CCC has become too powerful, but he says it’s more about influence. “Their word is in the UK taken as gospel, and if they say we need to move faster, then the Government tends to just say, well we need to do something,” he says. “They are in a position where they can bully governments into moving faster than perhaps governments would like.”

He agrees that there is “very little democratic oversight of what they do” and “they have pushed very hard on renewables… and there are other views”. Furthermore, Montford says “The committee’s got to be much more balanced… The whole thing is built around the idea that the general public’s interests revolve around the climate in 2050, and actually people have more immediate concerns, and those angles aren’t really addressed.”

Sam Hall, Director of the Conservative Environment Network, on the other hand, is more positive about the CCC. For starters, he says that David Cameron was an initial supporter of the Climate Change Act, which led to its inception, and that “as Conservatives, we should feel some ownership over this framework”.

He adds that “the fact that it’s expert, independent-advised” should mean “that targets can be less politicised” and that the Government doesn’t have to follow the CCC. “The Committee on Climate Change is there to provide that expert independent advice to inform policy-making, but ultimately it doesn’t make those decisions, so it wouldn’t have a veto on any changes to our climate targets.”

It strikes me that the closest thing to the CCC it is the Electoral Commission, but Hall points out that the EC has stronger powers (“to fine and take people to court”). The Office for Budget Responsibility might be a closer comparison. Montford thinks it is more like SAGE. (“politicians find it very hard to stand up to scientists… because then you’re anti-scientist, aren’t you.”)

Has the CCC become too powerful in politics? Although not exactly akin to the EC, you could conclude that, like it, it is part of the quangocracy legacy of the 2000s.

Its website certainly seems impressive and objective, as do its reports. However the biggest issue going forward may be one of public awareness. Frankly, I’m not sure many people are alert to the inner operations of the CCC, nor how big the bill for its recommendations are going to be.

It seems to me that such big decisions need – at the very least – more public votes, and attempts to keep the country’s environmental transformation committee-led, however sophisticated the committee is, will come back to bite.

The Electoral Commission has a new chairman – but do we really need it?

28 Jun

Over the weekend, the nation was introduced to John Pullinger, the new chairman of the Electoral Commission (EC), in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph.

Two interesting things came out of the piece. First, Pullinger admitted that the EC had been wrong to pursue Darren Grimes over alleged offences in the Brexit referendum. Second, that the EC plans to have an “independent discussion” with the Scottish Parliament about another independence referendum. Pullinger framed this discussion as being something that “helps” Scotland with its “democracy”.

While Pullinger’s apology to Grimes was a start in improving the electoral watchdog, as was his promise the EC must “do better”, it still hasn’t quelled concerns over its future direction. For one, Grimes himself pointed out himself that no one from the watchdog had said sorry personally – and that “all of those unable to understand the law they’re there to protect are still employed by the taxpayer”.

Pullinger’s words on Scotland, too, will merely convince the Government that the EC will continue to meddle in areas outside its remit. The Prime Minister has said he would reject a request for an “irresponsible and reckless” second referendum – yet the EC’s “independent discussion” idea seems to challenge that.

The Government’s cynicism over the EC is already well known. Amanda Milling, co-chair of the Conservative Party, said last year that if the EC fails to change and “do the job it was set up to do then the only option would be to abolish it.” And a week ago, it was revealed that Boris Johnson plans to remove its power to prosecute lawbreaking, in what is surely a small step towards greater action against the EC.

Opponents of Johnson have suggested his dislike of the EC is to do with its investigation into how refurbishments of his Downing Street flat were paid for. In general, any time the Government talks about electoral reform – relating to the EC or otherwise – it is accused of having ulterior motives. The Labour Party, ever desperate for its next insult to hurl at the Conservatives, has said “It is not for any government to dictate the priorities of an independent watchdog”.

Yet, as I wrote in April this year, the EC has rarely given a good impression of its “independence” – and thus deserves the scrutiny it now receives. One paper found in 2018 that almost half of the EC board had “made public statements criticising the pro-Brexit campaign or backing calls for the result to be overturned”, and its needless pursuit of Grimes – Pullinger now admits “what happened to him should not have happened” – and other cases have been completely over the top, and perceived as ideologically motivated.

Perhaps one of the ways the EC can “do better” is by tackling some of the every day issues we are seeing in elections. The news has been filled with dreadful stories about the Batley and Spen by-election, in which Kim Leadbeater, the Labour candidate, was chased and heckled; campaigners have been “followed, verbally abused and physically assaulted by a group of young men”; fake Labour leaflets have been distributed; and there have even been arrests (one for possession of an offensive weapon). Are these matters not more pressing for a body concerned with helping democracy?

As former head of the UK Statistics Authority until 2019, Pullinger will no doubt bring an interesting skill set to his role – and he has even acknowledged why people might have felt the organisation has been impartial. But for many people, it is simply too late, given the chaotic history of this Blairite entity. The test – of whether we need this body – has failed, many will think. And so, even with the best of intentions, Pullinger’s words on the Scottish referendum will only push the EC further to the brink.