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Decommission the Electoral Commission

These nobodies and know-it-alls have replaced the dusty old lords as a block on popular democracy.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Does the name Sam Younger mean anything to you? What about Peter Wardle, or Karamjit Singh? Surely you’ve heard of Glyn Mathias? He used to be a political correspondent for ITN and popped up on TV every now and then in the Eighties and Nineties.

No? Well, these four faceless individuals are among the top dogs at the UK Electoral Commission – the body that aims to ‘foster public confidence’ in the democratic process – which recently pronounced that it is ‘unsatisfied’ with the big three political parties for not being more open about where they get their funding from. It has also threatened to use its ‘legal powers’ to force the parties to come clean (1). You may never have heard of them, but they seem to wield power over people you have heard of, people you may even have voted into office.

Behold the new check on popular democracy. If the House of Lords, in Tom Paine’s cutting words, was the ‘remains of aristocratical tyranny’, and the continued reign of a King or Queen in Britain the ‘remains of monarchical tyranny’, then the Electoral Commission might best be described as a tyranny of nobodies, the pontification of the dinner-party set over our elected representatives. And yet, where many commentators these days balk at the old-world idea of a peer or Queen having, simply by virtue of the House into which they were born, the right to override or dictate to elected politicians, they welcome something like the Electoral Commission as a ‘necessary’ check on politicians’ connections and behaviour.

I would argue that the Electoral Commission is, if anything, even worse than those old gits who once stunk up the Lords (and who have since been replaced by younger, though no more democratically elected, gits). Some of us believe that the Lords frustrates democracy when it picks holes in Bills passed by the elected Commons – but the Electoral Commission goes even further, by interfering in the affairs of the political parties themselves and poking around into how they fund, promote and conduct themselves. It nurtures suspicion and distrust of politicians, and politics itself. We should decommission this Commission.

The Electoral Commission was set up by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, with a remit to monitor and write reports about British General Elections, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish assembly elections, and national referendums. It also ‘keeps under review’ matters including the registration of political parties and the regulation of their income and expenditure, and ‘political advertising in the broadcast and other electronic media’. It has set a limit for the amount of money parties can spend on advertising, and keeps an especially watchful eye on ‘controversial’ ads (2). We can’t have too many of those, apparently. In a nutshell, the Commission is like a domestic version of those NGOs that assume the right to watch and pass judgement on elections in various African, Eastern European and Latin American states – it is the suspicion of foreign political parties and their apparently dirty, underhand habits brought back to the homefront.

For the first few years of its existence the Electoral Commission published reports that bored the nation rigid (or at least those who read them) on the facts and figures of various elections and how more people might be encouraged to vote in them. It also made fairly low-level interventions into the parties’ advertising budgets and strategies. But in the past couple of weeks, as the ‘peerages for loans’ scandal has taken hold, it has bared its teeth.

Following allegations that various flush businessmen made unpublicised loans to the Labour Party and were subsequently rewarded with nominations for peerages by Tony Blair, the big three parties – Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems – have been put under pressure openly to declare where their funding comes from. People who give large amounts of money to political parties can remain anonymous if they’re making a commercial-style loan, but if they are giving a straightforward donation then their names have to be made public. The Electoral Commission is demanding to know whether various supporters are loaners or donors.

The Commission has declared itself ‘unsatisfied’ with the parties. When the Tories refused to reveal the names of those who had loaned them around £24million, the Commission threatened to take them to court to force them to do so. According to one newspaper account, headlined ‘Tories warned: come clean on loans or face court action’, the Commission wanted to ensure that the Tories had not struck any ‘under the counter’ deals (3). And the Commission warned that if it discovered that any of Tories’ loaners were in fact donors, then ‘the names of the donors will be released’. In short, the Commission would out individuals who had asked to remain anonymous. In the end, the Tories revealed the names of some of their loaners but had to give money back to those who wanted to remain in the shadows.

Earlier this week, Labour leader Tony Blair and Tory leader David Cameron met to discuss the future of party funding, after the Electoral Commission called for ‘full details of all financial contributions to political parties to be disclosed and for proof to be given that the loans were made on a commercial basis’ (4). It is little wonder that even Scotland Yard has kickstarted an investigation into the peerages for loans scandal, to see if any laws were broken: when the Electoral Commission and others treat the parties as dodgy financial outfits potentially with ‘something to hide’, it follows that the parties should have the cops sniffing around their premises. It is a short step to presenting politics as something fishy, and politicians as requiring heavy-handed threats of court action to put them on the straight and narrow, to arousing police intervention into the political process.

As the old formal checks on popular democracy – the Lords and the monarchy – have lost their standing and clout, they’ve been replaced with even more insidious, worthier-than-thou checkers and blockers. The Electoral Commission has much in common with some of the old anti-democratic methods. For example, it prides itself on being non-political. Indeed, the Act that set up the Commission says that members must not be a member of a registered party, an officer or employee of a registered party, or hold any relevant elected office. Look at the biogs of the Electoral Commission’s members and you’ll see that most of them come from the civil service or the media or have worked their way through various quangos and NGOs; chairman Sam Younger proudly declares he has ‘no personal history of party affiliation’ (5). In other words, they’re clean individuals, untainted by political alignment or partisanship; it is their very aloofness, it seems, precisely the fact that they are non-political and unelected, that makes them ideal characters to sit in judgement on the mass parties.

This is the same argument that traditionalists and royalists have made about the monarch: he or she is non-political, and thus he or she can sit above politics, sign or refuse to sign parliamentary Bills, and retain the power to dismiss elected governments. You hear it about the Queen all the time: ‘Ain’t it great that she never talks politics? We can trust her.’ Tom Paine attacked this notion that the monarch is trustworthy because he or she is non-political over 200 years ago (when the monarch played a very different role to the one it plays today) in his fiery pamphlet Common Sense: ‘There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of the monarchy; it first excludes a man from the means of information, yet empowers him to act in cases where the highest judgement is required. The state of a king shuts him from the world, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly; wherefore the different parts, unnaturally opposing and destroying each other, prove the whole character to be absurd and useless.’ (6)

You could say something very similar about the Electoral Commission today: that body, too, shuts itself off from the world of politics but also has the right to pass judgement on political matters; it ‘excludes itself’ from the messy business of standing in elections and having out hard arguments about political visions and futures, and yet its judgement is, in many ways, ‘the highest judgement’. It is as ‘exceedingly ridiculous’ to have an aloof group of faceless bureaucrats telling the parties how to fund themselves as it was to have an aloof monarch, stuck in his palace, pontificating to parliamentarians elected by the people.

In other ways, the Electoral Commission is different – and worse – than the old lords’ and monarch’s block on parliamentary democracy. It much more insidiously intervenes in the political process, not only by taking to task democratically elected mass parties but, going a step further, by interrogating the set-up and behaviour of the parties themselves. Where the House of Lords, undemocratically in my view, keeps a check on decisions made by elected politicians in the Commons, the Electoral Commission sticks its snout into how those parties are formed, how they are funded, and how they present themselves to the people during elections. Its starting point is not so much that elected parties might do something rash or overly-passionate once elected, but that having parties and elections in the first place is a potentially dodgy business, one which needs to be closely monitored and perhaps even overseen by court action and police investigations. The Commission seems suspicious of politics in the first instance, as well as acting as a barrier to democracy.

The Electoral Commission represents politicians’ own doubt and distrust in themselves. After all, this body was set up by parliament in order to keep a check on the parliamentary parties’ antics. Unlike the Lords and the monarch, which stood aloof from parliament and very often clashed with it, the Electoral Commission was voluntarily created by parliamentarians who seem to agree that they are involved in a shady business: politics. Clashes between the Commons and the Lords in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries led to some lively debates and popular, democratic reforms. Most notably, in the constitutional crisis of 1909-1911, Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith faced down the Lords, which had refused to pass his chancellor’s ‘People’s Budget’ – the Lords’ veto was overturned, Asquith fought an election on the very issue of parliamentary democracy, and the primacy of the elected Commons over the unelected Lords was established.

Then, parliament asserted itself in a stand-off with the unelected Lords; today, parliament creates an unelected Electoral Commission to keep a watchful eye on party politics and bows and scrapes to the Commission when it threatens court action. Then, parliament had a sense of itself as the mandated voice of the people; today, parliament creates layer after layer of quangos, committees and commissions to watch over the political process. Indeed, the Electoral Commission itself is being examined by the Parliamentary Committee on Standards. Where will it end? Who is examining the Parliamentary Committee on Standards?

Like the Electoral Commission I, too, am ‘unsatisfied’ with the political parties – but for vastly different reasons. The problem with politics today is not that there are more shady goings-on than there were in the past, but that it is pale and uninteresting. It is anaemic, lacking in vision, and a generally debate-free zone. The last thing we need is a Commission that aims to make such a political landscape even flatter.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) Come clean on loans, Tories urged, Yahoo! News, 25 March 2006

(2) The Electoral Commission to review political advertising, Electoral Commission, 3 October 2002

(3) Tories warned: come clean on loans or face court action, Guardian, 30 March 2006

(4) Police to probe Tory loans, Yahoo! News, 30 March 2006

(5) See the Electoral Commission website

(6) Common Sense, Tom Paine, 1776

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Topics Politics

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