Boris Johnson plans to take control of the independent Electoral Commission in another assault on democratic institutions

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, drew ire from across the political spectrum for trying to overhaul the rules that hold MPs to account during the recent Owen Paterson affair. Johnson whipped his MPs to support a parliamentary amendment that undermined an independent watchdog’s decision on Paterson’s lobbying activities. It passed, but without cross-party support, making it look like a political move against a democratic institution.

Until 248 Conservative MPs voted to disrupt the process, Paterson was in line for a 30-day suspension from parliament, according to recommendations made by the independent Committee on Standards.

The Conservative MPs were backing the Johnson government’s proposal to create a new committee to review not just the Paterson case, but the whole standards system. This system had been carefully constructed over several years to respond to and prevent further cases of the kind of “cash for questions” scandal that plagued British politics in the 1990s or the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009. The latter exposed widespread misuse of taxpayer money, including one example of an MP building a “floating duck island” in their pond.

The recommendations on Paterson had been made by an independent parliamentary official and unanimously agreed by a cross-party committee which included impartial non-parliamentarians. After a furious backlash, the government U-turned, insisting that “a cross-party consensus” was important for upholding standards and that talks would go ahead to find agreement on what changes should be made.

But the government is pushing ahead with another plan which also amounts to an assault on institutions that protect democracy. The elections bill, which is currently making its passage through parliament, will increase the government’s control over the Electoral Commission, an independent body designed to police political parties and protect electoral integrity.

Interfering in elections

Independent electoral authorities are essential components of democracy. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, international actors pressed for independent electoral bodies to be established to run and regulate elections across Eastern Europe and elsewhere. It was thought that it was essential for these bodies to be independent of the government of the day to prevent an incumbent changing laws or practices to suit their political interests. Independent electoral bodies became an important firewall against democracy being eroded. They are now found in two-thirds of countries across Europe.

I found in research for my recent book on running elections around the world that the independence of these bodies has a positive effect on the way elections are run. Electoral authority independence is shown to be a thorn in the side of autocrats wanting to dictate rules. Even in countries where we might be sceptical about about the body’s real independence, such as Russia, research has shown that formal independence boosts actual independence.

Ironically, independent bodies were not always found in some of the older democracies such as the UK and US, even though these nations held themselves up as examples to others.

The UK did finally get an Electoral Commission in 2000, following demands from a Standards Committee in the wake of a party funding scandal and a call to modernise elections.

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

Over the years, the commission has investigated 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, the organisation set up to support former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The commission is responsible for running referendums and sets performance standards for local electoral officials.

The elections bill, however, proposes to substantially weaken the commission’s independence. It proposes to strip the commission of its powers to bring prosecutions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It will give the government power to set a “strategy and policy statement” for the commission to steer its priorities. This would be a blank cheque for the government to change the Electoral Commission’s priorities. It could, for example, stop encouraging voter participation and accessibility and push measures that would suppress voter turnout or penny pinch in a way that would damage the integrity of elections.

The bill also gives parliament (but in practice government, assuming that it has a majority) the power to critically examine the Electoral Commission’s compliance with these orders. In other words, its independence from government would be fatally undermined.

The government has recently obtained a majority on the parliamentary committee that makes appointments to the Electoral Commission. It has not shown willing to redress this imbalance by listening to proposals made during the passage of the elections bill to ensure that the committee is governed by consensus.

Democracy under threat

The stakes are high. If this bill passes unamended, the prosecution of illegal overseas contributions to parties will be more difficult and future referendums will be run by a body that answers to the government of the day. Previously independent local election officials would now need to follow instructions shaped by the prime minister and ministers.

This is reckless, authoritarian and poorly thought through. The fairness of democratic institutions, elections and public confidence in them needs to be protected, respected and taken care of in an era where democracy is declining around the globe. Like the government’s regretted actions in the Paterson affair, the elections bill is a direct partisan threat to a valued institution. It is therefore important that Conservative MPs do not rush this bill through without thinking more carefully about the consequences for British democracy.

Toby James has previously received funding from the Canadian SSHRC, AHRC, ESRC, Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, British Academy, Leverhulme Trust, Electoral Commission, Nuffield Foundation, and the McDougall Trust.

His current research is funded by the Canadian SSHRC and ESRC.