Putting Voters First?

The Electoral Commission was created following the recommendations of the Fifth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life produced by Lord O’Neill in 1998 which argued for “a totally independent and authoritative Election Commission with widespread executive and investigative powers, and the right to bring cases before an election court for judgement”.

11.8 In our view, a number of important consequences follow. The first is that the members of the Commission should not, in the normal course of events, be people who have previously been involved in any substantial way in party politics.

Fifth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

Lord O’Neill argued for an independent body, but what has evolved is a body increasingly brought within the influence of political parties.

Our ten Commissioners lead our strategy and set our priorities. They are independent of political parties – though our four most recently appointed Commissioners bring direct experience in political parties – and are accountable directly to Parliament.

Electoral Commission website.

The four most recently appointed commissioners, Lord Horam, David Howarth, Alasdair Morgan and Bridget Prentice, are all past politicians. How independent of political parties are they really?

The Electoral Commission’s notepaper includes the slogan “Putting Voters First”, but the Chief Executive’s declaration of meetings for the last year seems to involve meeting many administrators and politicians, but no run-of-the-mill voters.

At the presentation to the Scottish Parliament the Electoral Commission’s Director of Communication Alex Robertson outlined their policy towards electoral integrity. (It is salutary that Mr Robertson, the third most senior executive of the Commission, is a public relations specialist).

“I add that the key to confidence in any result is transparency on the part of the people who have a stake in the outcome. I thought that it was extremely powerful that campaigners and politicians who had cared passionately about the outcome came out and said that they had seen the process and that there was not a problem. Throughout the day, there were numerous opportunities for people to identify that something had gone wrong, because the process was incredibly transparent. If people who were there and who cared about the outcome just as much as the other side say that they saw the process and that people should have confidence in the result, that is a powerful way of fighting some of the stuff that came through afterwards.”

Alex Robertson, Director of Communication, Electoral Commission, 8th January, 2015 to Holyrood’s Devolution (Further Powers Committee).

The implication of this policy is that so long as none of the parties object, any practice is fine. It seems that in Scotland some party activits have stretched this doctrine to breaking point, but the Commission stands behind them, not objecting. Indeed Mr Robertson thinks he should be “fighting some of the stuff that came through afterwards”. Categorically, in relation to postal vote sampling, the Commission are fighting stuff that is true to protect their reputation and the reputation of the politicians. Do they really believe that they are “Putting Voters First”?

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