The papers over the last week have been filled with dire prophecies of a very British Banana Republic, of ‘massive loopholes’ and ‘licenses to commit fraud’ at every level of our politics.
It seems Britain’s heritage industry has found itself with a new attraction at the heart of Westminster. The tourists lined up by the Thames may well be missing the main event, and that’s the way we run our elections – a historical curiosity they may be, but perhaps not best-placed to serve a modern democracy.
So why has this cropped up now? Well it’s all thanks to the good people at the Electoral Commission.
Commission prose is not designed to thrill, but deep in the pages of its latest report are a number questions left unanswered by the government.
Their chair Sam Younger warned that we are still “trying to run 21st century elections with 19th century structures, and the system is under severe strain.” Slight exaggeration it may be – quaint as they are these methods have at least given us relatively clean elections for years.
The report may have only touched on electoral registration, it was there that it delivered its biggest punch. The Commission called for registration at an individual rather than household level because of the regular allegations of postal voting fraud.
It is difficult for election staff to know if votes are being given to people entitled to them and fraud, particularly in postal voting, remains too easy. But despite years of concerted lobbying by the Commission, the Electoral Reform Society and others, the government has remained an immovable object.
For the media, prescription was simple: we need electoral reform, or something like it, and we need it now.
We might call this the modest school of electoral reform, otherwise known as tinkering. And tinkering though it may be, the problems are clear because we now have many more elections.
With devolution to Scotland and Wales and the creation of the London Assembly; we now have five separate electoral systems, some of them using electoral areas which cross the boundaries of the local authorities in which returning officers are based; and the huge increase in postal voting since it was offered on demand in 2000 has placed new burdens on electoral staff. Moreover, electoral officers now have responsibility not just for the conduct of elections, but also for promoting our participation in them.
Returning Officers are for most of the year local government officers, but come elections they gain their independence. Of course they are required to comply with electoral law, although challenging them is neither easy nor cheap. Most do their jobs well, and some do it very well, but that will not guarantee consistency of approach and does not ensure support for those who need it.
Rejecting calls for the big brother approach of ‘chief returning officers’, made in the wake of last year’s disastrous Scottish Parliament elections, the Commission proposes that all senior elections staff in an area get together as ‘electoral management boards’ – groups that can exchange experience and ideas. But crucially these would be boards with teeth.
And although chief returning officers would remain quite independent, the Commission will be monitoring their performance (and the Commission is not as indelicate as to spell out what happens if an official falls short).
On the legal framework for elections, the Commission takes up recommendations made after Scotland’s problems of 2007. That changing electoral law less than six months before an election is unwise might seem obvious, but in 2007 it was not so to politicians. If the Commission has its way, politicians will not be able to change the rules in the six months before elections unless they have compelling reasons to do so.
But tinkering has its limits. Voters want elections that give them what they voted for, and until the fundamentals of the system itself is changed that will not happen. It was a failure in our democracy that handed the Labour Government a massive majority with a little over a third of the votes, and it will be equally bad if a Conservative one is elected with similar minority support. And for ‘bad’, in the eyes of the First-Past-the-Post lobby at least, read ‘traditional’.
So it seems that providing perfect administration for our imperfect elections may be the democratic equivalent of bolting alloy wheels onto a horse and cart. But real reform is beyond the remit of the Commission, and change is unlikely to come from a weak government whose proposals would only be construed as an attempt to rig the system to stave off a rout at the polls.
So what can be done for the voters? If politicians either can’t or won’t change the system, they can at least put the question of how we elect our MPs where it belongs – in the hands of the electorate.
Other countries have used citizens’ assemblies – randomly selected bodies of a hundred plus people who meet over a period of time to consider options and recommend an alternative which can be put to the whole electorate in a referendum.
It’s an approach that’s entirely consistent with the government’s plans for consultation on other constitutional issues, and it would be difficult for its opponents to ignore the carefully considered opinion of such a body of electors. And if experience elsewhere is any guide, a UK citizens’ assembly is almost certain to recommend some form of proportional representation.
So let’s get all this very worthy tinkering out the way, in just the ways outlined by the Commission. But let us not pretend for a minute that that alone will wake up in a modern democracy. Getting the administration right is important, but we still need to remind politicians that “it’s the voting system, stupid”.
Dr Ken Ritchie, is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society