Rather lost in yesterday’s election excitement was a missive from Bob Posner, the boss of the Electoral Commission, aimed at all the parties involved along with their deep-pocketed supporters.
Posner has one of Britain’s most unenviable jobs: refereeing what looks set to be the nastiest election campaign any of us have had the misfortune to witness. I fear that we can expect more skulduggery than you’ll see in the average Martin Scorsese mob movie.
“It is important that all parties and campaigners comply with the rules and campaign responsibly,” he said, in what amounted to a headmasterly finger-wagging.
Trouble is, the children are bringing brickbats to what’s supposed to be a non-lethal game of laser tag. The worst the commission can do to them is confiscate their pocket money.
And it really is pocket money. The maximum fine it can levy is £20,000. If you’re wondering how Vote Leave managed to get hit with a £61,000 penalty after the EU referendum, it’s because it committed multiple offences.
Those fines probably amount to somewhat more than Vote Leave spent on tea and biscuits for the campaign committee’s weekly meetings, but they were basically just another cost of doing business.
That campaign’s governing body included one Michael Gove (the co-convener), Boris Johnson, and of course, the prime minister’s malevolent svengali Dominic Cummings.
Think they plan to heed Posner’s call?
The commission has made clear that the rules it oversees are outdated and inadequate. Some of them date back to the 19th century, around the time Alexander Graham Bell was granted a US patent for the first telephone.
That they haven’t been updated since then to cope with the era of data mining, cookies and targeted digital ads funded by God knows whom shames the entire political class.
The government’s inaction has effectively broken the ref’s legs before the match has even begun.
It doesn’t help that the electoral system itself is broken. Boris Johnson may be able to secure a majority for an extreme and damaging programme based on the votes of less than 40 per cent of the electorate.
And even if the Liberal Democrats were to exceed Labour’s share, the latter would still almost certainly serve as the official opposition, while the nationalists in Scotland could come close to sweeping the board.
It’s grossly unfair to the Brexit Party too. During the last election Nigel Farage’s former party, UKIP, racked up 120 second places but not a single MP. The same may happen this time around, depending on how many candidates his new party stands.
Abhorrent though his programme may be, in a properly functioning democracy, those arguing for a “clean break” from the EU ought to be able to secure representation.
The debates over electoral reform and electoral policing aren’t really all that far apart.
But if we’re going to use a bad system, it should at least enjoy effective oversight in an era where technology has served to create a cheat’s charter.
In July, the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Committee called for urgent legislation to ensure digital campaigning was covered by electoral law.
“The government cannot work on the basis of elections not taking place before 2021,” it said.
And here we are with one.
“Were an election or referendum to take place later this year, campaigns would be fought using electoral law that is wholly inadequate for the digital age.”
In written evidence to another group of MPs, this time the members of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, the commission sounded the alarm again:
“It is time for governments to take seriously and commit to the urgent need for comprehensive change, prioritising the time and resources needed to deliver meaningful improvement. We cannot afford to risk the hard-won confidence of voters and campaigners in our elections and referendums.”
Trouble is, the congregation isn’t listening. Johnson and Gove witter on about protecting democracy only to prioritise Voter ID laws in an adept to restrict the anti-Tory vote, all the while kicking the Electoral Commission’s proposals into the long grass.
Posner has been left left with his pop gun and his wagging finger. I fear he’ll be using both in the aftermath of the current poll, which is at risk of being the most polluted we’ve seen. The legitimacy of the result will inevitably be questioned by whomever loses. Probably not without justification.