A body fit only for the bin

The Electoral Commission has repeatedly wilted in the face of hysterical conspiracy theories

Editorial

Brexit turns on British institutions being able to serve British interests better than European ones. One of the high ironies of the entire project to leave the EU lies in a consideration of the state of British officialdom. Take one such institution, the Metropolitan Police (MPS), writing of another, the Electoral Commission (EC):

[the EC] documentation was not indexed or organised in what the MPS considered to be a systematic or logical fashion. The EC did not provide (and has not provided) the MPS with a comprehensive schedule of all used and unused material held by the EC . . . The MPS has sought further disclosure from the EC on a number of occasions . . . The MPS remains of the view that the EC has not disclosed all of the documents in its possession or control that are potentially relevant to MPS’ investigation.

It does not matter which conspiracy theory was being pursued by which cranks with which curiously funded lawyers: what must concern everyone is the state of our ability to govern ourselves. The Electoral Commission is not fit for that purpose.

This is not about Brexit. Or rather, it is not about the views of the Electoral Commission, its board members and its staff, towards Brexit. The institution’s prevailing culture is apparent: the EC’s staff have repeatedly displayed their ideological preferences. The past Facebook musings of the EC’s current director of regulation, Louise Edwards, included, in the wake of the country voting against Labour in a general election, “just don’t understand what people are thinking — do they not remember the Tories before? . . . what is wrong with people?”

These, it might reasonably be objected, were only personal opinions, but where are the counterbalancing opinions of EC staff in the opposite direction? It cannot be supposed that Tory or Brexit-inclined staff have a prudence about their opinions others lack. The point is that the EC patently lacks such staff.

But the problem with the Commission goes beyond who they are. It is also inescapably a matter of what they are and what they are there for. The essential question is about the EC’s competence. The bottomless pit of public money which enabled the Commission’s repeated legal actions against the privately-funded Leave campaigns continued, regardless of their repeated failures. Technical infringements were claimed and manically pursued while evidence of illicit behaviour by Remain organisations was studiously ignored. It is telling that none of the things the EC was eventually exercised over by the Brexit referendum campaign troubled it during the 2014 referendum on Scotland’s place in the Union.

No one has taken any responsibility for what the EC has got so painfully wrong

Worse still, the Commission repeatedly wilted in the face of hysterical conspiracy theories being peddled (the Russians, American disaster capitalists, the Saudis, right round the world it went) and was cowed by grandstanding lawyers and their crowdfunding fools. Where it should have held its ground, it reliably buckled, and always only in one direction: against Leave campaigners.

The young Leave activist Darren Grimes, Tory MP Craig Mackinlay and Vote Leave’s “responsible person”, businessman Alan Halsall, all found themselves put through years of legal persecution because the EC was too timid to stand up to threats made to it by political activists. Its self-interest was always to give way to the legal threats that politically-motivated individuals made against it.

Two days before our final election to the European Parliament, the EC gave in to Gordon Brown and showily “raided” (to no effect whatsoever) the offices of the Brexit Party. In best quango fashion, there have been no consequences for any of this. Claire Bassett, its chief executive from 2015 to 2019, has moved on to become chief executive of yet another quango. No one has taken any responsibility for what the EC has got so painfully wrong.

The Commission is opaquely responsible to parliament through the Speaker’s Committee — a discouraging instrument in the last parliament — with a backbench MP reading out the answers the EC supplies. Its staff, as we have seen, are promoted even today by the current, self-styled “Vote Leave government”. We should note that the body which created the EC, the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL), specifically said: “We do not envisage the EC in any way functioning as, or substituting itself for, the ordinary courts. The EC should not be, or be thought to be, a judicial body.” The EC is currently attempting unilaterally to give itself still more quasi-judicial powers.

The CSPL itself was a John Major-era dodge, attempting to escape sleaze-infected headlines. Its progeny, the EC, is the acme of politicians attempting to slough off their rightful responsibilities. An entity like the Electoral Commission is all too convenient for the worst sort of politician. In the public interest it should be abolished and its functions handed back to the courts from which they should never have been detached.

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