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Boris Johnson accused of ‘partisan interference’ over election watchdog

Exclusive: Former electoral commissioner David Howarth says new details of government power grab is exactly what experts feared

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Martin Williams Seth Thévoz
24 August 2022, 1.49pm

Boris Johnson has been accused of 'partisan interference' over the Electoral Commission reform

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Reuters/Peter Nicholls/Alamy

A former electoral commissioner has accused Boris Johnson of “partisan interference” over controversial new plans to increase government control over the UK’s election watchdog.

The reforms would prevent the Electoral Commission from bringing its own criminal prosecutions over election fraud and would compel the supposedly independent body to follow the government’s ‘priorities’.

David Howarth, who served on the Electoral Commission’s board from 2010 to 2018, told openDemocracy that the proposals are “precisely the kind of partisan interference with the Commission that we feared”.

Critics had already warned of a “power grab” by the Conservative Party, despite ministers promising that they would not interfere in the workings of the Commission.

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But new details, published this week, confirm that Boris Johnson is set on overhauling the Commission, saying it should “support the government's delivery of legitimate executive priorities”.

The policy announcement comes less than a year after the watchdog issued an £18,000 fine to the Conservatives for “inaccurate reporting” of donations made towards Boris Johnson’s Downing Street refurb.

Now, the government says the Commission should only issue fines as a last resort. Instead it should simply make “requests for improvements” when parties break election rules.

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Among those previously fined for breaking electoral law is Vote Leave. The Brexit campaign which Boris Johnson fronted was fined more than £60,000 for breaking spending limits during the 2016 referendum.

Howarth said: “It’s weird that a Conservative government apparently wants to undermine the power of deterrents.”

The document also says the watchdog should do more to raise awareness of voting rights “among British citizens overseas”. But Howarth says this implies that less work should go into other things, such as “persuading young and mobile people to register”.

“It is saying that the Commission should do more to help people more likely to vote Tory to register than to help people more likely to vote non-Tory,” he said. “An organisation cannot really be said to have priorities unless it can say what it doesn’t regard as a priority.”

Threats to fairness

When the plans were first mooted last year, critics accused Boris Johnson of trying to “neuter” the watchdog after it embarrassed him and his party with investigations into campaign spending.

The Conservatives have been hit with a series of fines by the Electoral Commission for repeatedly breaking financial regulations. Most recently, it was slapped with a £3,000 penalty just last month for missing a transparency deadline over loans it had received.

Writing for openDemocracy last year, David Howarth said the plan posed “serious threats to the fairness of all future elections in Britain”.

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

“It is difficult to express just how appalling this is … electoral commissions, like the courts, do not exist to please elected politicians. They exist to protect free and fair elections, which they can’t do unless they are independent and free from the control of the ruling party.”

The plan poses ‘serious threats to the fairness of all future elections in Britain’

Lord Evans, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, also condemned the proposals when they were first made public, saying: “This is a bit like giving a toddler a gun.

“It may not immediately lead to disaster but it is an extremely dangerous thing to do and we do not think that the current proposals go far enough in protecting the independence of the Electoral Commission.”

Speaking to openDemocracy last year, Labour MP Cat Smith described the move as a “backwards Trumpian attempt to rig democracy in favour of the Conservative Party”.

“If passed, the legislation will reverse decades of democratic progress in the UK.”

Details of the reform follow the passing of the Elections Act in April. The Act contains a range of controversial measures which the government says will tackle voter fraud and improve the Electoral Commission’s accountability.

The changes also include the introduction of compulsory voter ID, which has been criticised by many of Johnson’s own MPs.

Public opinion not welcome

The government is required to hold a consultation on the proposals, which will run until December. But it says: “We are not seeking the views of members of the public as part of this statutory consultation.”

When asked about this by openDemocracy, the Department for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities admitted that only three organisations are being invited to take part.

A spokesperson said the consultation “will provide the statutory consultees with the opportunity to share their views on the draft guidance”.

They added: “Under the Elections Act, those consultees are the Commission itself, the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission and the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee.”

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