“The plan to cut MPs looks suspiciously like a power grab”

“Are we witnessing a power grab?

Six months ago, reports suggested that the Prime Minister had dropped plans to force through a cut in MPs, a cut linked with the ongoing review of constituency boundaries.

It turns out there has been a u-turn on the u-turn, with news emerging that the PM is set to reduce the number of MPs.

That’s despite the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee warning that moves to cut numbers to 600 are unlikely to secure the backing of MPs.

But why the fuss?

The issue comes down to a very ill-thought plan for new constituencies – alongside some clear democratic dangers when it comes to reducing voters’ representation.

The cut in MPs actually represents a cut in backbenchers if there are no plans to cap/cut the size of the executive or ‘payroll vote’ correspondingly.

Parliament will gain more powers after Brexit yet will have less capacity to scrutinise legislation. At the same time voters lose their representatives in Europe. That places a greater burden on the Commons and a lack of capacity poses significant risks.

The democratic dangers are clear. ERS research in 2016 showed that in a smaller, 600-seat Commons, nearly one in four (23%) MPs would be on the government payroll if the parties’ proportion of MPs – and the total number of ministers and whips – stayed the same – an all-time high, and up from the 21% at present (figures as of November 2016).

The more you look at it, the more cutting backbenchers at the same as bolstering the executive looks to many like a worrying power-grab.

But there’s another factor – the unelected Lords. It’s just common sense that the cut in democratically elected representatives cannot go ahead while the House of Lords remains the second largest chamber in the world, with around 800 members.

If the government are concerned about reducing the cost of politics, they would do well to deal with the over-sized second chamber.

Voters need real representation in the Commons to provide the essential scrutiny and capacity we need: both for now and when we gain new powers after Brexit.

But there are problems with the boundary changes regardless of the cut in MPs. For a start, the new boundaries will be based on highly incomplete as well as out of date data. For example, people who registered to vote for the EU referendum won’t be counted for the new boundaries – skewing representation.

At the same time, the government has set an arbitrary 5% maximum difference in the size of the new constituencies. That risks awkwardly splitting up communities or grafting very different towns/counties onto each other – just look at the controversial Devonwall proposals.

Finally, unregistered but eligible voters are not being considered when drawing up these constituency boundaries – even though they will still need support and representation from their MP. This disadvantages poorer constituencies – they end up with lower representation, often despite greater need.

Far from reducing political representation and weakening voters’ voices, the Prime Minister should cancel the proposed cut in MPs – and move forward with fair boundaries based on a properly resourced Commons.

Read the ERS’ full views on the boundary changes here:

https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/campaigns/upgrading-our-democracy/fair-boundaries/ and here https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/cutting-the-number-of-mps-will-have-consequences-lets-get-this-right/

“Electoral Commission clears Remain campaign over allegations from Conservative MP”

The complaint was made by ex-Tory Minister Priti Patel, who was fired from (sorry “resigned from”) Theresa May’s Cabinet for having had numerous unauthorised meetings with Israeli politicians while “on holiday” in the country.

”Claims by Conservative MP and high-profile Leave campaigner Priti Patel that the Remain campaign broke the law during the European referendum have fallen apart under investigation from the Electoral Commission:

Former Cabinet minister and Brexiteer Priti Patel had … alleged that Britain Stronger in Europe failed to report joint spending with Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories.

But the Electoral Commission said it did not have “reasonable grounds” to believe the official Britain Stronger in Europe (BSiE) group exceeded its spending limits and would not be opening an investigation.

In a letter to Ms Patel, the commission’s head of regulation Louise Edwards said: “Following examination we are satisfied that while liaison took place there is no evidence of joint spending as a result.

“The evidence indicates that the meetings were advisory in nature, focused on communications and did not involve or result in decisions on referendum spending, or the coordination of campaign activities across campaigners, as part of a common plan or other arrangement.” [Daily Mirror]

What has, however, stood up to scrutiny is a long list of rule breaking by anti-EU campaigners:

Nigel Farage fined half his salary
Brexit campaigners fined for sending 500,000 spam SMS
Record £12,000 fine for Brexit campaigner
Brexit campaigner fined £1,500
Two Brexit campaigners fined £1,000 each
11 anti-EU campaign groups struck off”

The full, very strongly worded letter from the Electoral Commission to Ms Patel is here:


“British elections at risk from perfect storm of threats, says watchdog”

“The head of the elections watchdog has demanded urgent reform of the UK’s electoral laws and warned that the country faces a “perfect storm” of threats that could put the integrity of the system at risk.

Sir John Holmes, the chair of the Electoral Commission, also confirmed to the Guardian that the body has launched an inquiry into possible Russian interference in the EU referendum and is waiting for evidence from Facebook, Google and Twitter.

The regulator said that in order to police the electoral system properly, and hold politicians and campaigns to account, wholesale changes were necessary.

“We must avoid complacency to stop a perfect storm from forming which would put out democratic processes in peril,” he said.

In an interview with the Guardian, Holmes outlined a set of reform proposals which include:

New rules to require political campaigners to identify themselves on online advertising to combat Russian or other external interference in elections.

Increases in fines for political parties that find ways around election spending laws or fail to declare the source of their funding.

A new system requiring all voters to show photographic ID in polling stations.

A move away from only conducting votes on Thursdays and in schools or community halls. …

… “Electoral legislation is old, complicated and needs changing. There are proposals to do that. The government needs to give it legislative time,” Holmes said. …

… Following investigations into how the Conservative party moved campaigners and staff from its national headquarters to boost local party efforts in 2014 and 2015 – without properly declaring their hotel bills and expenses – the party was fined £70,000.

However, Holmes said the level of fines has to be increased to stop parties from taking such risks.

“Our ability to fine £20,000 for any single offence is not enough as an effective deterrent,” he said.

“Looking at the fines other regulators can apply, £20,000 looks fairly minimal. We think it should be bigger.”

Holmes also said the government should consider extending the use of photo identification at polling stations.

This suggestion follows allegations of widespread voting fraud, particularly around Asian communities in Birmingham, Bradford and east London.

The commission recommended in 2014 that voters should be required to prove their identities before casting a ballot, in the wake of widespread voter fraud in Tower Hamlets.

Critics of the plan say it potentially disenfranchises large numbers of people on low incomes who do not have photo ID.

Voting laws should also be reformed to allow new ways of voting, Holmes added.

“We should look at changes for a new generation of millennials who are the digital generation.

“We are not saying that we should move now to online voting because of the risks of hacking but that doesn’t mean that nothing ought to change.

“We need to ask ourselves whether voting on a Thursday in an old school building is the only way we can do this.”

The commission will release a report on Wednesday into the performance of returning officers at this year’s general election, with Holmes set to outline his proposalsin a speech to the Institute for Government later in the day.”


CEO and Head of Audit suspended after irregularities in voting at General Election

Here in East Devon there were numerous mistakes made by our election officers but, so far, they have avoided examination or censure.

Nothing will change till electoral officers have to legally submit budgets of exactly how much money they spent (or did not spend), how much extra they were paid to do the job (average £10-20,000 per election, some got much more) AND they come under the Freedom of Information spotlight (they are currently exempted).

“Almost 1,500 voters were unable to take part in a general election contest which was won by just 30 votes, an independent inquiry has concluded.

Two senior officials in Newcastle-under-Lyme were suspended today following damning investigation into the June 8 election.

Newcastle Borough Council chief executive John Sellgren and Elizabeth Dodd, head of audit and elections, have been criticised for a number of issues by the Association of Electoral Administrators.

It found 500 postal voters were disenfranchised, nearly 1,000 potential electors were not included on the voting register and two people were able to vote who were not eligible to.

Labour’s Paul Farrelly held off a charge from Tory Owen Meredith to hold Newcastle-under-Lyme with a reduced majority.

The election cannot be re-run because complaints about the running of a poll must be made within 21 days.

But the probe concluded the result could have been different if the wrongly excluded voters had been allowed to take part.

The investigators it was ‘impossible not to question the result’ and detailed a ‘complex picture of administrative mistakes around registration and postal voting processes’.

There was an ‘inadequate performance by inexperienced and under-resourced elections office staff’, the report found.

Mr Farrelly described the election arrangements as a ‘shambles’ in the aftermath of the poll.

Mr Meredith said today: ‘It is vital lessons are learnt from this experience and that the recommendations of the report are implemented in full.
‘Urgent action must be taken by Newcastle Borough Council to ensure the credibility of upcoming council by-elections in December and the all-out elections in May.

‘Voters will be rightly horrified by the details of the report’s findings and trust in the democratic process in Newcastle-under-Lyme has been badly undermined. Urgent action is needed to restore that trust.

‘Voters have been truly let down by the Council officers and leadership and those involved must consider their positions.’

Council leader Elizabeth Shenton, said: ‘I sincerely apologise on behalf of the council for that situation but we can’t turn the clock back and right any wrong that occurred at that time.’

An Electoral Commission spokesman said: ‘Good planning and open communication are vital to ensure voters can receive the quality of service they deserve.

‘Both our guidance and this independent report recognise these factors.
‘We will now consider this report’s findings as part of our assessment of how Returning Officers performed at June’s election.

‘The Commission will continue to support and challenge the performance of the electoral services department at Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council to ensure forthcoming elections are well-run.”


More political donor sleaze

“The publication of Northern Irish political donors’ identities has been postponed to the new year because of a delay by the government in putting the necessary legislation before parliament.

The Electoral Commission had planned to publish information on donors who had given money to parties registered in Northern Ireland for the first time on Thursday.

Ann Watt, the head of the commission in Northern Ireland, said it was “extremely disappointed that we are unable to provide the public with the information they expected on how political parties in Northern Ireland are funded”.

“The continuing secrecy only serves to undermine trust and confidence among the public in the democratic process,” she said. “We were consulted by the Northern Ireland Office several months ago on draft legislation and provided detailed comments.”

The non-disclosure of information on donors to political parties in Northern Ireland dates back to the Troubles. It means that while Northern Irish political parties have to divulge donor information to the Electoral Commission, it cannot publish information identifying those donors.

The provision came under intense scrutiny when it emerged earlier this year that the Democratic Unionist party had spent £425,000 in the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum campaigning for Brexit.

Following questions from the media, the DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the cash had come from the pro-union Constitutional Research Council, chaired by the former Scottish Conservative party vice-chairman Richard Cook. The CRC’s donors are unknown.

The majority of the money was used to pay for a wraparound advert in the Metro newspaper, which is not published in Northern Ireland, while £32,750 was paid to AggregateIQ, a social media political consultancy based in Canada, also heavily used by Vote Leave, the official leave campaign.

Earlier this week, the Electoral Commission announced an investigation into Vote Leave over whether it breached the £7m EU referendum spending limit. The official leave campaign spent £6.8m itself and donated £625,000 to a fashion student’s campaign called BeLeave. At issue is whether BeLeave was genuinely independent of Vote Leave: the money it received was sent directly to be spent on social media marketing for AggregateIQ.

A government spokesperson said: “There remains widespread support for full transparency among the people of Northern Ireland.

“In line with that aim, we have brought secondary legislation before parliament that would provide for the publication of all donations and loans received by Northern Ireland parties.”

The Electoral Commission then updated its position in a second statement from Watt: “We are pleased that the UK government has acted to make this important change a reality. Transparency in how our political parties are funded is key to ensuring public trust and confidence in the democratic process.”


“Electoral Commission launches inquiry into leave campaign funding”

”Watchdog has ‘reasonable grounds to suspect offence was committed’ by Vote Leave, a student campaigner and another Eurosceptic group.

The watchdog will investigate whether Vote Leave, which was the officially designated Brexit campaign during the referendum, broke campaign finance rules.

Bob Posner, the commission’s director of political finance and regulation, said there were legitimate questions over the funding of campaigners which “risks causing harm to voters’ confidence in the referendum”.

The campaign, run by political strategist Matthew Elliott and former special adviser Dominic Cummings, will be investigated alongside Veterans for Britain and student activist Darren Grimes, now the deputy editor of the Brexit Central website, where Elliott is now editor-at-large.

The investigation has been opened after a review of previous assessments that the Electoral Commission conducted in February and March 2017, where it initially decided no further action was needed.

The commission said new information had since come to light which meant it had “reasonable grounds to suspect an offence may have been committed”.

Grimes and Veterans for Britain will be investigated as to whether he delivered an incorrect spending return in relation to a donation they received from Vote Leave and related campaign spending.

Vote Leave’s spending return will also be investigated, as well as whether the campaign breached its spending limit.

“There is significant public interest in being satisfied that the facts are known about Vote Leave’s spending on the campaign, particularly as it was a lead campaigner with a greater spending limit than any other campaigners on the ‘leave’ side,” Posner said.”


“Dark money” in British “democracy” – a disturbing development

“… Whatever the grim necessity of these [sexual harrassment] revelations, they contribute to a sense of decline and institutional failure, and thus to an increasingly dangerous lack of trust.

But the rot in Westminster goes beyond alleged sexual harassment, to other forms of subversion that have yet to be exposed. As May prepared to go to the House of Commons for the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions, there was a very significant development in the continuing but almost unnoticed investigations by a handful of journalists—most operating outside the mainstream media—into the financing of the Vote Leave campaign in 2016.

After inquiries led by the independent media outlet OpenDemocracy, Britain’s Electoral Commission announced an investigation to see whether an insurance entrepreneur named Arron Banks broke the law by allegedly channeling $11 million in loans and gifts to a campaign for the U.K. to leave the E.U. (Banks, in response, tweeted, “Gosh I’m terrified.”)

The source of the money is somewhat of a mystery. OpenDemocracy, led by editor Mary Fitzgerald, carried out an analysis by Iain Campbell and Alistair Sloan of Banks’s financial affairs that allegedly showed he was not nearly as rich as he claimed, and suggested the $11 million came from elsewhere.

Some suspect the source is Russia, whose dark money has allegedly been used to fund operations of destabilization across Western democracies.

While Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Ben Bradshaw have consistently promoted the need for scrutiny on this and other possible Russian influence, Banks mocked the idea. “Allegations of Brexit being funded by the Russians . . . are complete bollocks from beginning to end,” he said. Meanwhile, his representatives tried to menace OpenDemocracy. “Make sure you get it right—it’s clearly a political hatchet job and our lawyers will take action if you get one bit wrong,” read a recent e-mail to Fitzgerald.

The Russian ambassador to Britain, Alexander Yakovenko, was quoted on the Russia Today site as saying the story was “outright insulting for the British government and the British people,” which is not, if you read it carefully, a categorical denial.

There are two other big concerns about the influences on the Brexit vote, which are equally important yet still ignored by the largely Brexit-supporting press and—more shockingly—by the BBC.

In this respect, Britain differs radically from the United States, where media and institutions have taken seriously their duty to hold the Trump administration to account on possible Russian involvement in the presidential election a year ago. In the U.K., there is a kind of chill that surrounds the subject of the E.U. referendum—anyone who dares to doubt that the result was purely the “people’s will” is ignored.

The first area of doubt concerns a donation of $574,000 to the leave campaign from the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, which now props up the May government in Parliament.

As OpenDemocracy has revealed, the money was channeled through a secretive group called the Constitutional Research Council (C.R.C.). Because Northern Ireland has special rules to allow donations to be made anonymously, it is impossible to discover whether the money comes from a legitimate source, as defined by British electoral law. But a hint of something unorthodox came when the Electoral Commission levied a fine of $8,000 in connection with C.R.C.’s activities.

The more worrying development, which Britain shares with the United States, is the use of big data and voter targeting on social media by the far right, which is now believed to have been very influential in the Brexit referendum.

Where to draw the line between the activities of the Russians and the far right is difficult because their interests and methods overlap. However, a recent academic study has shown that a network of Twitter bots comprising 13,493 accounts tweeted on the E.U. referendum, only to vanish the day after the vote.

It is hard to know whether these were controlled by Russia or the far right. “Putin’s agents tried to influence the U.S. election,” E.U. chief negotiator Guy Verhofstadt tweeted this week. “We need to know if they interfered in the #Brexit vote too.” (If you want a very full explanation of this new peril, it is worth reading the research in full.)