Friday, 21 March 2014

Time to abolish the Electoral Commission?

Like all my blogs, the following is a personal view, and does not reflect the views of the Conservative Party or any of the local Conservative Associations for whom I work.  

Thirty years ago, when I first started fighting elections, I recall my annual visit to the Town Hall to collect nomination papers from the Elections Office. 

Housed in a small room on the third floor, staffed by an avuncular man, his secretary and another lady who was only there four mornings each week. This team of two and a half full time people were responsible for the smooth running of the democratic process in my borough of 500,000 residents (four parliamentary constituencies). And as far as I can recall, nothing went wrong. Out of curiosity I phoned the same Council this afternoon and I was transferred to the “Elections and Democracies Directorate” to ask how many FTEs they now employed. Understandably there was a bit of reluctance to tell me, but when I mentioned that it was not an unreasonable request, and that I could easily submit an FOI, I was given the number – eleven. An increase of 450%. 

Are elections in this borough 450% better or more efficient than they were 20 years ago? To be fair, I don’t necessarily blame the council as I suspect there has been a pro-rata increase in most authorities. Much of the blame can be placed at the door of new legislation, more elections and the ever increasing demands and bureaucracy of the Electoral Commission.

Back in the 1980s I clearly recall the process. The nomination pack was five or six pieces of paper. There was the nomination paper, a consent form, an appointment of election agent form a form to request a register and lists of absent voters and a very pompous pink form explaining the requirements of the Official Secrets Act.  That was it. Another pack contained the election expense returns; this was a double sided piece of A4 paper with a very officious declaration which had to be signed in front of a Justice of the Peace. In total, perhaps six or seven pieces of paper from start to finish. The outcome of this process; a candidate was successfully nominated.

Today I collected my Candidates’ Packs for the local government elections. Each pack contained:

1. A letter (printed in colour) welcoming the candidate to the democratic process and explaining that the Elections Team are “here to help”

2. A timetable (which could be downloaded from the Electoral Commission’s website).

3. list of contents

4. A blue piece of paper upon which the following was printed  “This page is not part of the nomination pack and should be ignored.”  Only an organisation which spends other peoples’ money and is not accountable would spend money on printing a blank page and print a notice on it to inform people the page served no purpose.

5. A nomination paper (plus two pages of explanatory notes)

6. A consent to nomination form (with four pages of explanatory notes of such detailed complexity that I was absolutely none the wiser having read them)

7. An appointment of election agent form (plus two pages of explanatory notes)

8. A request to use party emblem form

9. A Certificate of Authorisation form (plus a page of explanatory notes)

10. A page asking candidates to list their name, address, telephone numbers and email address “for internal use only”.

11. Another page stapled to (10, above) explaining that it was not a statutory requirement for candidates to provide this information and how the information, if provided, would be used, stored and disposed of under the Data Protection Act.

12. A request for electoral register form

13. A request for proxy voter list form

14. A request for postal voter list form

15. An appointment of polling agents form

16. An appointment of counting agents form

17. An appointment of agents to supervise the opening of the postal vote ballot box form

18. A statutory declaration of election expenses form (which has grown from 1 double-sided sheet to 12 pages, plus two additional statements. Plus a six page booklet explaining how to complete it)

19. An internal telephone directory listing the names, responsibilities and extension numbers of everyone in the “Elections Team”

20. A six page “how to be a candidate” booklet 

Finally, and ironically, a last piece of paper announcing, 

if you think you are missing any pieces of paper from this pack, 

please phone the Elections Team….

In total, I counted 53 pages of forms and explanatory notes. And the outcome of this ridiculous increase in form filling, guidance and instruction?  A candidate will be successfully nominated. Just as they would have been previously, but with 46 fewer pages!

Where does the blame for this nonsense lie? The Electoral Commission. Created by Labour in 2001, it churns out rules, regulations, instructions, guidance notes, reports and advice as if its future depended on doing so. Which strangely enough, it does! There could not be a clearer or more obvious example of bureaucracy creating meaningless activity to justify its continued existence.

For decades, local councils managed their own electoral affairs under a short Act of Parliament and supervised by a small department in the Home Office. The wheels of democracy turned, elections came and went, candidates fought or lost. No-one complained. So just what is the Electoral Commission actually for and what has it achieved?

One Returning Officer I know well told me that ahead of the AV Referendum the Commission published 247 instructions, with which each RO had to comply. Many of these were valid and necessary (but happened under the old system anyway) such as the date to post postal votes and the size and style of the font used on the ballot papers. However the instructions also included how many pencils and pencil sharpeners per 1000 voters at each polling station and the length of the string attaching the pencil to the polling booth!

Has it improved participation?
No. Turnout continues to fall, random, unwanted and expensive pilot schemes to improve turnout have all failed, millions spent on TV, press and radio advertising have failed. Even the Commission’s own research shows knowledge and understanding of the electoral process has fallen.

Have the quality of candidates improved?
Hard to quantify, but I suspect the quality of people being elected is, at best, the same as it ever was. With several honourable exceptions, local government is not blessed with the most original minds or the freest of thinkers.  Local councils are not awash with Chamberlains.

Are more candidates standing?
Actually yes, but this is due to the proliferation of smaller parties who field slates of candidates. The era of three party politics is over. Nothing to do with the Electoral Commission.

Is spending more controlled or transparent?
For me, not at all. I still spend just as I did previously, only now that spending is spread over 12 pages of forms rather than the two pages previously. If I wanted or needed to hide anything, it would be far easier to so, and they have abolished the requirement for a sworn statement in front of a Magistrate, which must have acted as some form of sanction.

Is the democratic process simpler for those who wish to participate?
No, we have seen no difference. We turn up, give our name, take a piece of paper, place our X alongside a name, the fold the paper and drop it in a box – just like we always did. Nothing has changed.  247 rules and instructions have not opened up the process or made any real difference. I know of no-one who was ever disenfranchised due to a blunt pencil or a too shot piece of string.

So, to summarise, the electoral commission has not reduced costs, not increased turnout, not improved transparency, not encouraged greater numbers of candidates or improved the pool of available talent, not improved accountability.  I am not aware of any worthwhile Key Performance Indicator which could be used to judge it a success. I can see not rational business case for keeping it.

Obviously the Commission would disagree and say my comments and criticisms are parochial. No doubt they would claim a higher calling; to safeguard the sanctity of the process, investigate and implement good practice and share access and opportunity. All worthy values, if (and only if) one considers the system which served our country for decades to be so flawed as to require a QUANGO of 200 staff with a budget of £22 million a year to fail to put right what was never broken.

Publishing reports that no-one asked for and few will read, imposing procedures that are best left to those who understand their communities and collecting data for the sake of it and creating paperwork which adds no value nor serves any real purpose, does not equate to being successful. To me, these are activities of an organisation which needs to appear to be busy in order to justify their continued existence.

I was saddened that the entire QUANGO wasn't done away with at the stroke of a pen in 2010. Tens of millions would have been saved. No-one would notice they had gone. I hope the next government has the courage to close them down. 


  1. Obviously political parties don't want to be regulated. Nobody wants to be regulated. One cannot judge the success of a regulatory system by the views of those it regulates. That's obvious.

    What you're missing is that the EC is cracking down on electoral fraud, such as the massive Labour postal voting fraud in Birmingham in 2004 - and frankly that's reason enough for it to exist. Maintaining a public register of parties' expenses is also important for democracy.

    You clearly didn't really bother to inform yourself before posting – it's easy to mock blank blue pages and the figure of "247" instructions, but the actual nitty gritty of what the EC does has been strangely omitted – so it's hardly surprising that they've not written anything worthwhile.

  2. "What you're missing is that the EC is cracking down on electoral fraud, such as the massive Labour postal voting fraud in Birmingham in 2004" What's it doing about Tower Hamlets then, Gabriel? and other places similar? You're not a Labour supporter are you perchance? Just asking ....

  3. The Electoral Commission has always been a huge white elephant staffed by people who know nothing about elections. When I looked at jobs it specifically prohibited applications from candidates who had either worked for political parties or in electoral administration in the previous 5 years. Why would you have any faith in an organisation which has no input from people with years of experience?

    I can't count the meetings I sat in or counts I've attended when it became obvious that EC staff had little knowledge of electoral law. It's a dreadful organisation and should have been abolished in 2010 - sadly though we must be seen to be doing "something" when things go wrong, whether that something is helpful or not.

  4. The Electoral Commission is not technically a QUANGO. It was set up by Parliament which is why it hasn't been abolished.