Monday, November 29, 2021

Boris Johnson plans to take control of an independent election commission in another attack on democratic institutions

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, recently drew anger from across the political spectrum for trying to overhaul rules that took lawmakers into account during the Owen Paterson case. Johnson lashed out at his lawmakers for supporting a parliamentary amendment that undermined an independent watchdog’s decision on Patterson’s lobbying activities. It passed, but without cross-party support, it seemed like a political move against a democratic institution.

According to recommendations made by the independent Committee on Standards, Patterson was in line for a 30-day suspension from parliament until 248 Conservative lawmakers voted to disrupt the process.

Conservative lawmakers were supporting the Johnson government’s proposal to create a new committee to review not only the Paterson case, but the entire standard system. The system was carefully constructed over many years to answer and prevent further cases of the “cash for questions” scandal that plagued British politics in the 1990s or the 2009 parliamentary expenditure scandal. The latter exposed widespread misuse of taxpayer money, including an example of an MP building a “floating duck island” in his pond.

Recommendations on Patterson were made by an independent parliamentary official and agreed unanimously by a cross-party committee consisting of impartial non-Parliament members. After a furious backlash, the government made a U-turn, emphasizing that “a cross-party consensus” was important to maintain the standards and that talks would go ahead as to what changes should be made.

Owen Patterson has resigned as MP.
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But the government is pursuing another plan which amounts to an attack on institutions that defend democracy. The election bill, which is currently being passed through parliament, would increase the government’s control over the Election Commission, an independent body designed to police political parties and protect electoral integrity.

meddling in the election

Independent electoral authorities are an essential component of democracy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, international actors pressed for the establishment of independent electoral bodies to run and regulate elections in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. It was thought that it was necessary for these bodies to be independent of the government of the time in order to prevent a current changing laws or practices to suit their political interests. Independent electoral bodies became an important firewall against the erosion of democracy. They are now found in two-thirds of countries across Europe.

In researching my recent book on elections around the world, I found that the independence of these bodies has a positive impact on the way elections are conducted. Freedom of electoral rights has been shown to be a thorn in the side of autocrats willing to set the rules. Even in countries where we may have doubts about the actual freedom of the body, such as Russia, research has shown that formal freedom outweighs real freedom.

Ironically, independent bodies were not always found in some older democracies such as Britain and America, even though these nations set themselves as examples for others.

Following demands from a standards committee in the wake of the party funding scandal and calls to modernize elections, the UK finally received an election commission in 2000.

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The role of the commission is to ensure integrity and transparency in the finances of elections. Political parties, campaigners and other groups report their finances and the commission publishes them openly online for all to see. It can investigate parties or campaigners who violate these rules, and has certain enforcement powers, such as the ability to impose fines – although these are often considered inadequate.

Over the years, the commission has examined spending by the Conservative Party and the Vote Leave Brexit campaign. It has also looked into the finances of other parties, including the Liberal Democrats and campaign groups such as Momentum, an organization founded to support former Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn. The commission is responsible for conducting referendums and sets performance standards for local election officials.

The Vote Leave campaign is just a slogan on the side claiming that the UK sends £350 million to the EU every week.
Various figures from the Vote Leave campaign were fined by the Election Commission for funding irregularities in the Brexit referendum.
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The Election Bill, however, proposes to substantially undermine the independence of the Commission. It proposes to strip the commission of its powers to prosecute in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This would give the Commission the power to determine “strategy and policy statements” to drive its priorities. It will be a blank check for the government to change the priorities of the Election Commission. For example, it could stop encouraging voter participation and access and pursue measures that suppress voter turnout or pinch a penny in a way that harms the integrity of the election.

The bill empowers Parliament (but the government in practice, assuming it has a majority) to critically examine the compliance of these orders of the Election Commission. In other words, its independence from the government would be fatally undermined.

The government recently gained a majority on the parliamentary committee that makes appointments to the Election Commission. The committee is unwilling to correct this imbalance by listening to resolutions made during the passage of the election bill to ensure that the committee is governed by consensus.

democracy in danger

the stakes are high. If the bill is passed without amendment, it will be more difficult for parties to prosecute illegal foreign contributions and a future referendum will be run by a body that answers to the government of the time. Previously independent local election officials now have to follow instructions given by the prime minister and ministers.

It is reckless, authoritarian and poorly conceived. The fairness of democratic institutions, elections and public confidence in them need to be protected, respected and cared for, in an age where democracy is declining across the world. Like the government’s regrettable actions in the Patterson case, the election bill is a direct partisan threat to an important institution. It is therefore important that Conservative MPs do not rush this bill without thinking more carefully about the consequences of British democracy.

This article is republished from – The Conversation – Read the – original article.

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