Sweeping undemocratic changes are being rushed through without consultation

Author:
Jessica Garland, Director of Policy and Research

Posted on the 6th October 2021

A major change to the voting system for Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners has been slipped into the Elections Bill at Committee Stage – after MPs and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) scrutinised the rest of the bill.

The plans, revealed exclusively in the Telegraph, would remove the current preference-based Supplementary Vote method used to elect Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners and impose First Past the Post.

The government is setting a very dangerous precedent by rushing these sweeping constitutional changes through with minimal scrutiny. This will only stoke fears of political gerrymandering and an attack on voting rights.

The original bill already included mandatory voter ID which makes it harder for everybody to vote, and risks disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of voters. Changes to the Electoral Commission threaten the independence of our elections watchdog, and new restrictions on civil society campaigning have raised serious concerns about free speech.

Most of this bill received no pre-legislative scrutiny, in contrast to legislation such as the Online Harms Bill. There has been no formal public consultation on the bill as a whole, and ministers are ignoring the recent Committee on Standards in Public Life report and the principle that governments should consult on big constitutional changes.

Governments in Scotland and Wales are clear that they have not been properly engaged with, and they are right to be holding ministers to account on this.

It isn’t just the Electoral Reform Society who are worried about this bill.

Kyle Taylor, Director of Fair Vote UK told us: “While it is absolutely correct that we need new legislation to update our election laws in the face of new and emerging threats, it’s becoming increasingly clear this is no way to go about it. No pre-legislative scrutiny, no consultation with devolved governments and new sections added after publication. It’s time to pause and rethink this bill. Let’s get it right, not do it quickly. Democracy depends on it.”

Tom Brake, Director of Unlock Democracy, said: “The case for a pause and rethink was already strong, with the need to take into account the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s recommendations. Now the case for a pause is unassailable, as a result of the indecent haste to rush through changes to the Mayor and PCC voting systems – about which there was no consultation, and there has been no scrutiny.”

Naomi Smith, CEO of Best for Britain said: “Despite the spin, it’s clear that the true aim of this Bill is to silence critics, cripple opposition and rig future elections for those already in government. In a move straight out of the authoritarian handbook, it takes powers away from the independent watchdog and hands them to Ministers, meaning they’ll be responsible for marking their own homework. MPs from all political persuasions who believe in democratic accountability should oppose this Bill”

Klina Jordan, co-founder and Chief Executive of Make Votes Matter, said: “So much of the Elections Bill is a thinly-disguised power-grab by the Government, designed to weaken the little democracy that we do have. After the official consultation period for the bill ended, the Government inserted a last-minute instruction to change the voting system for mayors and police and crime commissioners to First Past the Post (FPTP), an undemocratic system which would be less representative of voters’ wishes. But people were not made aware of an opportunity to respond to the instruction! The process calls to mind tricks of tin-pot dictators – can a consultation be called a consultation when no-one knows about it?

“This change would be a backward step for our democracy and leave millions more voters without a voice in politics, being governed by officials they simply didn’t vote for. At Make Votes Matter we know that we need less FPTP, not more – and over 30,000 people have signed our petition to say so.”

Under the proposed rules, the Electoral Commission will come under ministerial direction, something expressly ruled out for other regulators, and there will be further restrictions on what charities and campaigners can do during election periods.

We urge ministers to pause and rethink this legislation and allow time for real public consultation and proper scrutiny of the proposals. We need electoral law to protect our elections not fiddle with the rules of the game.

What is the ERS doing?

The ERS has been following the plans, and raising the alarm, since the government published Securing the Ballot in 2016. Written by the former Chair of the Conservative Party, this report was used as the basis for the voter ID trials in 2018 and 2019Our report on the trials highlighted many of the problems that are in the press now.

The ERS’ petition reached nearly 60,000 signatures and was handed in along with those collected by a coalition of concerned organisations, reaching a total of 300,000.

ERS research briefings have been quoted repeatedly during debates in the House of Commons and ERS Director of Research and Policy, Dr Jess Garland, gave evidence to the Commons PACAC committee.

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The government should pause and think again about this legislation