You’d think given the rising tide of disinformation, dodgy donations and dark ads online, the government might be getting serious about empowering our elections watchdog.
Instead, the Conservative Party has actually issued a call to abolish the regulator, the Electoral Commission.
The Electoral Commission is responsible for overseeing elections, regulating political finance and registering political parties in the UK (find out more about its role here). More broadly, its remit is to promote public confidence and participation in our democratic processes and to ensure their integrity. And it does that job very well on the whole.
Yet rather than giving the Commission the powers it needs to tackle fears over potential Russian interference and rule-breaking, the governing party is proposing to scrap the Electoral Commission, in a submission to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. (We’ve set out our response to the inquiry).
A Dangerous Move
This dangerous move would do nothing to serve the needs of our democracy, at a time when it is already under threat and is suffering a collapse in political trust.
Instead of providing much-needed reform to our out of date and inadequate system of electoral regulation, scrapping the Commission will weaken our electoral integrity, risking a free-for-all in campaigning that will put a free and fair debate under threat. With it, our ability to tackle growing threats posed by online political campaigning will be severely undermined.
More Powers, Not Less
What the Electoral Commission needs is the increased powers and resources, befitting a 21st regulator – to be able to tackle the challenges of the modern age.
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The governing party raises the fact that the Commission is forced to pass on cases to the police for investigation. However, this is down to its own lack of investigatory powers – powers already available to other regulators like the Information Commissioner.
It is striking that we now have a regulator with substantial powers to protect data privacy, but no such resources have been granted to the regulator entrusted with protecting our democracy.
The government has shown some commitment to protecting the integrity of our elections through the proposed introduction of online imprints but the success of this is dependent on a strong electoral regulator to enforce these reforms.
Any move to abolish the Electoral Commission would be a dangerous backwards step, undoing much of this positive work. This call – however churlish it may be – should be nipped in the bud now, for the bizarre backwards step it would represent. In the vacuum created by the lack of effective body overseeing our elections, significant wrongdoing would emerge, and go unnoticed.