Almost a month ago, I asked if the Electoral Commission was up to the job, given its absurd failures to protect democracy against documented abuses in Tower Hamlets, its inexplicable imbalance on the question of the two sides of the EU referendum, and its failure to publicly rebut conspiracy theories about the recent voter ID trials (a policy that the Commission itself had proposed).
The latest news regarding the Commission’s investigations into the EU referendum campaign adds to those questions. It now seems that, having investigated Vote Leave twice before and cleared the organisation, the Commission has now reinvestigated the same allegations for a third time and is reportedly planning to decide that the campaign broke electoral law in four ways.
That policy of repeated reinvestigation is a bit strange in itself: is it the EC’s view that its own investigations were incapably run the previous two times? If so, were the same officials involved, or have they been replaced? Should all EC investigations be taken with a pinch of salt from now on, as they may yet be repeated and reversed? Is this third investigation final, or is it open to being undone and overturned by a fourth? Why do allegations against one side of a referendum merit multiple reinvestigations, but similar allegations against the other side don’t get investigated even once? At minimum, it’s an odd way for a regulator dealing with matters of law to behave, and hardly inspires confidence in the body’s decision-making.
There’s a detail in today’s news that is even more eyebrow-raising, however. The BBC reports that the Electoral Commission carried out its repeated investigations, including this latest one, without ever interviewing any of the senior staff of Vote Leave, including those directly involved in the issues the allegations relate to. In addition, a Vote Leave source says that: “No senior Vote Leave staff member has been interviewed in the production of this report, or at any point in the last two years.” That is despite them offering to meet the Commission for exactly that purpose – something you would naturally want to do if there were allegations that you wanted to answer.
That is absolutely extraordinary – how can anyone possibly claim to have investigated allegations, or draw conclusions about their veracity, if the ‘investigators’ haven’t even interviewed the people alleged to be responsible and those around them? If the Commission has passed up offers to carry out such interviews, it’s hard to see how they can possibly claim to have a complete and informed understanding of what did and did not happen. Without such an understanding, how can they claim to reach any conclusions?
As discussed last month, this is simply the latest in a depressingly long line of incidents which raise questions about the Electoral Commission’s capability to do its job properly. That is especially concerning given the times in which we live, faced as we are with new and dangerous threats to our democracy. Regulators and law enforcement authorities have important jobs to do and serious powers with which to do them – this one in particular does not appear to be living up to the responsibilities with which it has been charged. It’s time for an investigation into the Electoral Commission’s fitness for purpose.