Over the weekend, the nation was introduced to John Pullinger, the new chairman of the Electoral Commission (EC), in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph.
Two interesting things came out of the piece. First, Pullinger admitted that the EC had been wrong to pursue Darren Grimes over alleged offences in the Brexit referendum. Second, that the EC plans to have an “independent discussion” with the Scottish Parliament about another independence referendum. Pullinger framed this discussion as being something that “helps” Scotland with its “democracy”.
While Pullinger’s apology to Grimes was a start in improving the electoral watchdog, as was his promise the EC must “do better”, it still hasn’t quelled concerns over its future direction. For one, Grimes himself pointed out himself that no one from the watchdog had said sorry personally – and that “all of those unable to understand the law they’re there to protect are still employed by the taxpayer”.
The new Chairman of the @ElectoralCommUK has apologised to me, through the pages of the Telegraph, nobody at the Electoral Commission has apologised to me personally. Actually, all of those unable to understand the law they’re there to protect are still employed by the taxpayer. pic.twitter.com/YZyBvd8bcW
— Darren Grimes (@darrengrimes_) June 26, 2021
Pullinger’s words on Scotland, too, will merely convince the Government that the EC will continue to meddle in areas outside its remit. The Prime Minister has said he would reject a request for an “irresponsible and reckless” second referendum – yet the EC’s “independent discussion” idea seems to challenge that.
The Government’s cynicism over the EC is already well known. Amanda Milling, co-chair of the Conservative Party, said last year that if the EC fails to change and “do the job it was set up to do then the only option would be to abolish it.” And a week ago, it was revealed that Boris Johnson plans to remove its power to prosecute lawbreaking, in what is surely a small step towards greater action against the EC.
Opponents of Johnson have suggested his dislike of the EC is to do with its investigation into how refurbishments of his Downing Street flat were paid for. In general, any time the Government talks about electoral reform – relating to the EC or otherwise – it is accused of having ulterior motives. The Labour Party, ever desperate for its next insult to hurl at the Conservatives, has said “It is not for any government to dictate the priorities of an independent watchdog”.
Yet, as I wrote in April this year, the EC has rarely given a good impression of its “independence” – and thus deserves the scrutiny it now receives. One paper found in 2018 that almost half of the EC board had “made public statements criticising the pro-Brexit campaign or backing calls for the result to be overturned”, and its needless pursuit of Grimes – Pullinger now admits “what happened to him should not have happened” – and other cases have been completely over the top, and perceived as ideologically motivated.
Perhaps one of the ways the EC can “do better” is by tackling some of the every day issues we are seeing in elections. The news has been filled with dreadful stories about the Batley and Spen by-election, in which Kim Leadbeater, the Labour candidate, was chased and heckled; campaigners have been “followed, verbally abused and physically assaulted by a group of young men”; fake Labour leaflets have been distributed; and there have even been arrests (one for possession of an offensive weapon). Are these matters not more pressing for a body concerned with helping democracy?
As former head of the UK Statistics Authority until 2019, Pullinger will no doubt bring an interesting skill set to his role – and he has even acknowledged why people might have felt the organisation has been impartial. But for many people, it is simply too late, given the chaotic history of this Blairite entity. The test – of whether we need this body – has failed, many will think. And so, even with the best of intentions, Pullinger’s words on the Scottish referendum will only push the EC further to the brink.