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Volume 50 Number 23, June 20, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Major Review of Electoral Law Announced

Necessity to Overcome Anachronism of Political Process and Institutions

The Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) is to review electoral law. Rather than look at the electoral process itself, the review will examine the regulation of the process, with particular reference to campaign expenditure and the laws regarding financing parties and candidates. It will also assess the powers held by the Electoral Commission, the police, and the prosecution services to enforce the rules. The review will last for a year, including a public consultation stage ending on July 31. The report, to be released next June, is expected to propose strengthened powers with tougher sanctions and to close loopholes in the regulations. Before it has even begun, it is already being speculated that it might propose to replace the Electoral Commission altogether.

"Our review will look at what the regulation of election finance should achieve and how it is regulated," announced chair of the CSPL, Lord Evans. "That will involve examining the Electoral Commission's role as a regulator of election finance, along with the work of the police and CPS in this area. We intend to look at electoral regulation from first principles - what really matters in this area? What values and principles should guide regulation of finance during elections?"

It is widely claimed that the current regulations are out of date in the age of digital targeting, lacking, for example, a requirement for enough transparency of spending by political parties or referendum campaigns on social media. Digital campaigning, says the CSPL, "has transformed the way in which parties and campaigners engage with voters, creating challenges for the regulation of election and referendum campaigns".

The context of the review is a cartel party system that dominates all aspects of parliament and the electoral process. Even when it comes to referenda, elections operate via the organisation of massively-funded official sides, around which the political factions align themselves, and that operate as stand-in parties.

The Electoral Commission was created in this context in 2001, following the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, to regulate the running of elections and the financing of both the parties and the electoral process. Later, the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 gave the Commission new powers and introduced new sanctions. Since that Act, four electoral commissioners are nominated by political parties. It is therefore not an "independent" body, but is part of the cartel party system of and actually partly run by the cartel parties themselves.

In this context, accusations of bias have been made of the Commission on various occasions, most sharply over its investigation into the Vote Leave campaign. On May 13, Conservative MP Peter Bone labelled the body a "politically corrupt, totally biased and morally bankrupt quango" and called for its abolition. This, however, was over the fact that the Electoral Commission had the temerity to investigate Vote Leave in the first place, not that it had very little power to act on the results of investigations. It emphasises the incoherence over what the brief and powers of the Electoral Commission should be, and that "standards in public life" are perceived, at best, in a very narrow way. What is left to predominate is an anarchy of factional infighting.

This factional infighting has also characterised the issue of whether or not to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, and how the redrawing of constituency boundaries should be carried out. The Parliamentary Boundaries Bill received its second reading in the Commons at the beginning of this month. The Bill, proposed by the government, proposes that recommendations by the boundary commissions for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should not be voted on by the House of Commons and House of Lords, but that these changes would automatically become law. Not surprisingly, the Labour Party has accused the Conservative Party of making a "power grab", and using the constituency changes to its own advantage, while the government asserts that it strengthens the independence of the boundary review process.

Cat Smith, the shadow Cabinet Office minister whose brief covers voter engagement, said: "The government's decision to end parliamentary oversight by denying MPs the chance to vote on the boundary review process is yet another attempt to diminish scrutiny and concentrate power in the hands of the executive. The new boundaries will be dangerously unrepresentative of the current electorate. Choosing the electoral register of 1 December 2020 as the basis for drawing new boundaries is politically motivated. The December 2020 register will be heavily affected by Covid-19 as local councils will struggle to update electoral registers whilst dealing with this crisis."

Above all, these contradictions show that the political process and institutions have had their day and must be replaced by something different and fresh, with a view to putting power in the hands of an informed electorate, not mediated through "representatives" who arrogate to themselves the name of the people in an institution where their duty is to represent the person of state. Even the symbol of Parliament is a portcullis topped by a crown, and flanked by chains. In short, the people are disempowered.

What has become evident is that under this cartel party system, it is not the people who determine the outcome of elections. For this very reason, the process is able to sort out neither the relations between the electors and the elected nor the contradictions within the ruling class and between the political factions. The regulation and bodies that exist are ostensibly there to make every vote count, and yet no vote counts.

Disinformation is not an issue of rogue electioneering, but of the systematic wrecking of public opinion by the state, media, and political parties, which operate to deprive the people of an outlook. People need an outlook that allows them to think for themselves and work out what is in their own interests and in the general interests of society; what is promoted in its place is the outlook of competing economic and political cartels with private, self-serving interests.

The nature of power at this time, particularly "at this difficult time", where it has even appeared in the person of the Queen, lies exposed. The plea to the people to entrust their fate to a government that takes care of things is increasingly being rejected with a growing clamour of "Not in Our Name". The problem of empowerment posed by modern conditions is the objective need for all citizens to be able to meaningfully participate in decision-making over the direction of the economy and politics and any other questions facing society. Moreover, the need is for new mechanisms through which people speak and act in their own name - in other words, exercise power directly - rather than authorise some other figure to exercise power on their behalf via the mediation of the cartel parties that block people from power.

Specifically, neither the fielding of candidates, the mobilisation of sides, nor the constituting of the government should be done on a party basis. It is the process, organised to guarantee that all citizens have an equal right to elect and be elected, which should be funded by the state, while any state funding of parties either directly or indirectly should be ended. In this sense, to be political is to fight for the empowerment of the working class and people.


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