As plenty of other people have noted, Friday’s court verdict was a vindication for Darren Grimes. That he has withstood years of destructive public pressure, threats of financial destruction, outrageous slurs from various public figures in politics and the media, and an endless stream of deeply vile online abuse is a testament to his strength of character. That he ever had to withstand any of those things in the first place, however, is a disgrace and a troubling reflection on an utterly dysfunctional regulator: the Electoral Commission.
Too often in recent years, people have tried to equate the Electoral Commission with democracy itself. To dare to suggest this quango might not be good at its job has been treated as a cardinal sin. Anyone questioning how it uses – and selectively does not use – its powers was met with melodramatic gasps and fan-wafting swoons from commentators and politicians who surely know better than to believe that any public body is above criticism.
When I – and thousands of others – donated to Grimes’s appeal, and when ConservativeHome published, the reaction from the same quarter was that it was inherently illegitimate to appeal at all, and even that it was against the rule of law to try. That was always an unhealthy position to take – the right to appeal is part of the rule of law – and this case demonstrates why it is so wrong-headed. The Electoral Commission used its powers wrongly, and Grimes and his supporters have done the right thing in revealing and reversing that – and yet even today, the head of the TUC complained that it is not “good for democracy” for him to raise concerns arising from his treatment about the Commission’s judgement.
This should not be an end to the issue, not purely because of its behaviour towards Grimes but because his case is not a lone example of the Commission its job seriously wrong.
This is a body which dishes out the wrong advice on the laws it is meant to oversee; which itself admits guidance it produces is confusing and unclear; which turned a blind eye to the scandal in Tower Hamlets; which frustrated the Metropolitan Police so much that Scotland Yard’s lawyers went on record to say it failed to share and properly manage evidence; and which has just squandered over half a million pounds fighting a failed legal case in support of an incorrect judgement, in a manner that left it looking like a mix of incompetent and vexatious.
The Electoral Commission seems utterly consistent in only two things: an unwillingness to apologise for its errors, and an inability to learn from them.
Isn’t that rather worrying? This is the body charged with overseeing and defending the integrity of our democratic process. That process faces real threats – both from fraud at home and malicious actors abroad – and yet the organisation intended to be its shield is a clown-car farce, apparently incapable of even properly understanding its own brief, never mind seeing off Vladimir Putin.
There are two attitudes which we need to shake off, urgently. The first is a general dogma that regulators are somehow sacrosanct simply by virtue of their mission statement. Institutions are important, but only when they work well to serve their stated purpose. It’s weird and, frankly, dangerous to denounce and reject any criticism of a failing regulator as if it is an unchallengeable priesthood and anyone questioning it is a heretic.
The second is more specific to our current circumstances. Some people appear to have decided the Electoral Commission can do no wrong because they dislike the politics of its most recent victim, namely Darren Grimes. In cheerleading for it as a weapon of political vengeance they don’t exactly disprove the charge from Grimes and others that it is acting in a biased way. And yet at the same time many of these same cheerleaders would be the first to express concern about the threat of Russian influence over and disruption of British democracy.
If that concern is genuine, how can anyone hold it and simultaneously be relaxed about the obvious problems within the Electoral Commission, which is the body meant to guard against such threats? Can anyone really be so blind as to disregard the risks in backing a failing body to the hilt, just because they view it as helpful in disrupting their political opponents?
Whatever side you took in the referendum, whichever party you support, surely this case and all the errors that have gone before ought to be enough for us all to agree, once and for all, that the Commission is not up to the job.