Darren Grimes is a commentator, Brexit campaigner, and podcaster.
On Thursday night, the Metropolitan Police wrote to me confirming they will not be acting on allegations made against me by the Electoral Commission and various Remain campaigners. Let me tell you, on Friday morning I had quite the hangover.
It would be remiss of me not to thank the editors of this site for allowing me to publish here two years ago, with a call to arms to start my crowdfunding efforts that allowed me to go to court, and win against the Electoral Commission in my appeal against the fine they imposed on me.
I owe it all to all of you that donated, whether big or small. It is thanks to you that I can leave these last hellish four years behind me.
In his judgment in my appeal, His Honour Judge Dight preferred the submissions of my CrowdJustice-funded legal team on the true facts and the law, to those of the Commission, even though it instructed expensive City solicitors, James Eadie, and two junior counsel in an attempt to rescue it at vast expense to the taxpayer. In a damning judgement, Dight found that the Commission had not understood the law it exists to uphold.
The Commission told the High Court in 2018 that it never advised Vote Leave, the official pro‑Brexit campaign, that it could lawfully donate to a separate group. Two judges ruled that this assertion was misleading – as proved by emails between Vote Leave and the Commission.
An investigation by The Sunday Telegraph found that four out of ten of the quango’s commissioners had openly criticised Brexit or called for a rethink, amounting to almost half the entire board commissioners, including the Chairman. In 2019, the police claimed that the Commission had failed to supply “potentially relevant” documents required in order to determine whether criminal charges could be brought against me and others.
To whom is the Electoral Commission accountable? By operation of the statute that established it (the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act), it is answerable to Parliament, via a Speaker’s Committee.
The House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PAC) also scrutinises the Commission. In its first Report of Session 2019, this Committee made a recommendation that caught my eye: “we also recommend that our successor Committee should carry out an inquiry into the role and effectiveness of the Electoral Commission”. I could not agree more, and will argue below its urgency.
In light of the series of costly mistakes made by the Commission, the Speaker’s Committee, the PAC and the Cabinet Office (the goverment department with responsibility for ensuring the effective running of government) need to review the operation of this state regulator that purports to “promote public confidence in the democratic process and ensure its integrity”.
The Electoral Commission has been stuffed full of mediocre bureaucrats who aren’t legally trained and who have no first-hand experience of elections or campaigns. They made serious procedural errors and exceeded their powers on several occasions: Louise Edwards, their Head of Regulation (who has made anti-Conservative statements in the past), breached an explicit undertaking to my solicitor to provide the transcript of an interview she conducted with me. I was interviewed under caution – under what authority is still unclear to me.
I was twice cleared by her of wrongful conduct, but was sanctioned on allegedly fresh evidence, after the wealthy Remain activist, Jolyon Maugham, judicially reviewed the Electoral Commission’s second investigation. I asked during the third investigation for disclosure of fresh evidence, but they produced none. These mistakes were thoroughly exposed at the appeal in court.
The quango tried to have me settle out of court, when they realised the hearing was not going well for them. They knew that I was a young man in my twenties of very limited financial means, a fact they acknowledged in their notice. My mother had offered to sell her ex-council house to cover the cost of my legal fees. In their egregious offer, I would still have had to accept guilt, but would walk away from it with a reduced fine of £5,000. I did not have £500, never mind £5,000.
I am firmly of the view that this goes to the very heart of the issue: this is a regulator out of control. The Electoral Commission, in recognising it did not have a case, should have withdrawn it and accepted its failings. It did not. It continued to pursue me.
My own tribulations with the quango are accompanied by a slew of other examples of bias. Guido Fawkes revealed how Remainers had shared data, suppliers and campaign materials, coordinated spending, and shared unbranded Keira Knightley fronted videos amongst themselves without declaring it, and funnelled £1 million to new campaigns set up in the month before the vote. The Electoral Commission’s response? “After a thorough assessment, our conclusion is that we can find nothing beyond conjecture.”
After all of this, you might be forgiven for believing that heads would roll at the Electoral Commission. Not so. Claire Bassett voluntarily left the Electoral Commission after a three-year stint as Chief Executive during which the regulator conducted its three investigations into Vote Leave and me, only to end up with a plum job as Chief Executive of the UK Trade Remedies Authority. What should really stick in your craw is how important that body will be for the UK’s post-Brexit trade landscape. There is no accountability in the UK’s quango-state – only rewards for failure.
Fundamentally, voters must be served by institutions they can trust. Take Alan Halsall, Vote Leave’s responsible person, a patriotic businessman who put his head above the parapet in UK politics. He has also been subject to four years of hell from this. Why would anyone like Alan now selflessly engage with our democratic process? Risking action in our courts, incompetence and bias from the state regulator and financial ruin.
The important point I would ask you all to take away from this is that democratic engagement must be open to all. If ordinary people are fearful that they risk being penalised by a biased regulator if they do something wrong, or, in my case, don’t do something wrong, the regulator becomes an impediment to participation in our democratic process. British politics relies in large part on volunteers.
People volunteer their time to be candidates, to assist candidates getting elected and the vast majority of election agents are volunteers. If the Electoral Commission continue to aggressively pursue such volunteers, then there will simply be fewer volunteers prepared to get involved.
And there are hundreds of bodies just like the Electoral Commission, many without an obvious route of appeal. Judicial review, open to the wealthy, is one route to challenge a regulator’s decision.
But it’s expensive and not available to challenge substantive decisions in most cases. After four years, three investigations, a court case and an investigation by the Metropolitan Police, I’m absolutely clear: there needs be a reckoning – before irreparable damage is done to trust and confidence in our ballot box.
What happened to me and Vote Leave, who I am confident would have also won their appeal had they had the millions required to continue it, must never be allowed to happen again. I would argue a full review of the law in this is needed. It is byzantine – and beyond the understanding of the institution created to oversee it.
In the meantime, If the Government decides that new leadership is needed over at the Electoral Commission and requires someone with an understanding of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, after four years I’m now pretty well versed and willing to make myself available.