Even Tories should be wary of Gove's election stitch-up

9 September 2021

7:36 AM

9 September 2021

7:36 AM

Conservative politicians appear willing to revolt on every issue: tax rises, China, lockdowns. But on the accumulation of power by their party they remain silent. The system is being rigged to their advantage, and on that shady objective they are happy to give the Johnson administration a free pass.

Imagine a football club giving itself the right to decide when the referee can grant a penalty – or a gang of potential criminals having a veto over police investigations – and you will understand the impact of the government’s latest proposals perfectly.

Its Elections Bill places the referee under the control of the ruling party and the cops in the usual suspects’ pockets. Ministers want to set the ‘strategic and policy priorities’ of the Electoral Commission. It will no longer be an independent organisation, that investigates without fear or favour, but the creature of the politicians it is meant to protect us against.

In authoritarian states, the ability to nobble the ref is the first step on the road to one-party rule. David Howarth, a former Electoral Commissioner, told Open Democracy that policy control up to and including control of individual cases gives ministers the ability to interpret the Electoral Commission’s powers to favour the ruling party.

The government must be counting on no one caring. Most people have no idea of the existence of the Electoral Commission. We live in a country that has become used to free and fair elections. We take them as a part of the natural order, rather than seeing them as public goods that have to be fought for and defended.

The attack by the Tories has been planned for years. After the 2019 election, Labour politicians were surprised to see the Conservatives placing Michael Gove on the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. What, they wondered, was a senior minister doing on an obscure technical committee? They soon found out.

Although Johnson is a slapdash dilettante, Gove is methodical. The man who in his neo-con days in the noughties wrote movingly of the need to defend liberal societies against radical Islam appears not to be the pro-democracy enthusiast he once was.

The Conservative party built its majority on the committee by appointing MPs with a grudge against the Electoral Commission. Craig Mackinlay has a place. After being cleared of knowingly falsifying election expenses in 2019 – and as his campaign manager received a suspended sentence for dishonestly preparing election returns – he cried:

‘I can’t even begin to relate, in words, the indignity of being in the dock, behind glass in court 7 of Southwark crown court’. 

So, too, does Karl McCartney, the Conservative MP for Lincoln, who complained he was the victim of an Electoral Commission ‘witch hunt’ after the Crown Prosecution Service cleared him of electoral impropriety in 2017.

Some conservative-minded Spectator readers may not care. The whole point of culture war is to subvert respect for the integrity of the democratic system. The right (or left) makes their opponents appear so diabolical that any swindle is justified if it serves the end of keeping the enemy from power.

In the US, contempt for democratic propriety has reached the stage where large sections of the Republican party reject the results of free and fair elections. The silence of otherwise rebellious Conservatives in the UK on the attacks on judicial review and the human rights act, on the BBC and the integrity of public-sector broadcasting regulation suggest that Manichean propaganda has done its work here as well. Whatever their doubts about Boris Johnson, they agree that the system must be warped to ensure the Conservative party remains in power. If Gove is willing to twist it out of shape, you won’t hear them complain.

Is it worth reminding you that the interests of Conservatives and interests of the Conservative party are not identical? The Tory party is now the Property Developer party. The Financial Times calculated that a quarter of total donations made to the Tory party since July 2019 came from individuals and companies in the sector.

If you live in a city, where the old buildings are being cleared or blocked out from the light by sky-scrappers – or near a section of the green belt disappearing under concrete – you must feel that Johnson wants to rig the planning system as surely as you may now feel the electoral system is under threat. It is not in your interests for the investigator of the influence of money on elections to be neutered.

Nor is it in the interest of any Conservative with an eye to the future. In years from now, somehow, left-wingers will be in power again, and all the jobbery and jiggery-pokery the Tories have used to maintain their rule will be the left’s to dispense with.

It is not just the Electoral Commission. Campaign group Best for Britain highlights Gove’s attempt to give ministers a new power to place restrictions on groups’ – including charities and civil society organisations – spending on political campaigning in the year before an election.

As Johnson is repealing the Fixed Term Parliament Act, no one knows when the next election will be. Trade unions, charities and individuals could face the prospect of punishment when they had no grounds to know that they were breaking the law. Perhaps the government wants them to shut up permanently. It certainly gives that impression.

If the same rules applied to everyone, there would at least be consistency. But the government has inserted a clause into the bill that the Secretary of State (Gove for now) can add or remove the names of organisations and individuals from the list of regulated bodies. You can see him and his successors adding the names of trade unions and removing the names of the Countryside Alliance and property developers.

This sinister measure seems designed to keep the Conservative party in power indefinitely, and it feels futile to warn Conservatives that the weapons they have forged will be turned on them.

Nevertheless, if Conservatives do not believe in democratic propriety they should at least consider self-interest. However hard it is to imagine it, they will be gone one day. Nothing lasts forever. Not even Tory governments.

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