UK Government Just Dramatically Seized Control of the Independent Elections Watchdog

In a late-night vote, politicians failed to stop the government from snatching power from the Electoral Commission, taking any notion of democracy with it.

A woman casts her ballot at a garage which is being used as a polling station in Croydon, on general election day in south London, Britain, June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
A woman casts her ballot at a garage which is being used as a polling station in Croydon, on general election day in south London, Britain, June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
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LONDON (Bywire News) - The UK government have just been given the green light to “take control” of the country’s independent elections watchdog, in a dramatic move that cannot be described as anything other than authoritarian. 

The Elections Bill

Recently, the Elections Bill have been making its way through the UK’s upper chamber, the House of Lords. It’s a piece of legislation that changes a lot of aspects of how people vote in the UK. As the Local Government Chronicle wrote, some of the changes the bill proposes include:

  • Making the controversial First Past The Post system of voting the default for more elections.
  • Altering the way British citizens living overseas have to register to vote in the UK.
  • Tightening up the rules around postal and proxy voting.
  • Making people produce ID at polling stations to be able to vote.

The bill also contains changes to how EU citizens vote, and moves to make elections more accessible for disabled people. There’s one element of the Elections Bill that has caused an outcry, though. And it involved the independence of the UK elections regulator and watchdog the Electoral Commission. 

Electoral Commission

As The Guardian wrote this part of the bill will:

give the government a new power to issue directions to the Electoral Commission… in the form of a “strategy and policy statement”. Last week the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee (which has a Conservative majority) said this posed an ‘unacceptable risk to the functioning of our democracy’”.

The UK government is claiming that it’s putting this measure in place to improve the “accountability” of the commission to parliament. But the chair of parliament’s committee on standard in public life said of the government’s plan:

We remain deeply troubled by the long-term risk to our democratic system that is inherent in provisions which give the government of the day, whatever its political complexion, the opportunity to exert influence on the way the commission operates”.

So, there’s been a battle going on between the Houses of Parliament and Lords over this part of the bill. 


In the space of a few days, the House of Lord first voted down this part of the bill. It then went back to the House of Commons where MPs forced the measures around the Electoral Commission back in and sent it back to the House of Lord. Then, late on Wednesday April 27, an amendment by peers in that chamber failed to pass – meaning, the government got its way. This was, according to one Lib Dem peer, a result of Labour members of the House of Lord not bothering to turn up to vote. 

And that’s effectively it. The bill now goes back to the House of Commons where it will end up becoming law. 

An Authoritarian Nightmare 

It's impossible to see this part of the Elections Bill as anything else but an attempt by the Conservative government to take control of the Electoral Commission. Even by the government’s own admission, the commission will now have to:

consider the… [government’s strategy and policy statement] and weigh it up against any other relevant considerations. It will work in a similar way to other existing statutory duties which require public bodies to ‘have regard’ to specific considerations in the carrying out of their functions”.

That is – the UK government will write a load of rules and objectives that the supposedly independent Electoral Commission will now have to abide by. Otherwise, it will have to answer to parliament. Bear in mind, the bill is coming from a government whose ruling party the Electoral Commission fined just months ago for not reporting donations properly. Also bear in mind that the Conservatives have a huge parliamentary majority, so any “strategy and policy statement” can be a blank cheque to do what they want. 

Making the elections watchdog answerable to the very people it’s supposed to be watching makes an absolute mockery of our already ridiculous democracy. When coupled with additional elements of this bill, and other pieces of legislation such as the so-called Police Bill which restricts protest rights – the UK has turned into a far-right authoritarian nightmare. 

(Writing by Steve Topple, Editing by Cléo Celeste)

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