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Anger as Tories seek to weaken regulation of elections

b74m (Photo by Agni B on Unsplash)The Tory obsession with controlling everything, locking down the state in their favour, taking donations from rich oligarchs with an agenda, and riding opinion polls on popularist measures like immigration has led me to the stage when I ask myself each morning if the UK has morphed into Viktor Orbán's Hungary, however this morning it feels more like Putin's Russia.

The Guardian reports on disquiet and growing controversy over a proposed new law that will hand Michael Gove the power to set the remit of the hitherto independent watchdog that oversees elections and party finances, including donations.

They say that under the elections bill, now passing through parliament, the Cabinet Office minister, Gove, would be given power to set the entire remit of the commission, as part of a series of changes that ministers say will strengthen democracy. But opposition parties, and some senior Conservatives, say the bill will be seen as another attempt to dismantle checks and balances in the system, and rig the political process in favour of the Tories:

Critics of the bill say it bestows unprecedented and unchecked power on government over elections in two ways; first, by empowering ministers to set both the agenda and purview of the commission, and second, by enabling the minister for the Cabinet Office to change which organisations and campaign activities are permitted a year before any election in the UK. They say ministers will be able at a stroke to ban whole sections of civil society, including unions and charities, from engaging in elections by campaigning or donating.

The Cabinet Office says the bill is a "necessary and a proportionate approach to reforming the Electoral Commission while respecting its independence".

Daisy Cooper MP, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: "First Boris Johnson tried to stitch up MPs standards and now he's trying to do the same to our elections. This is an assault on British democracy and part of Boris Johnson's attempts to rip up the very fabric of our liberal democracy.

The case that apparently initiated this change in the law was this one. The sentencing report says:

Marion Little is a senior and respected employee of the Conservative Party at its Central Headquarters and has been so for many years. She was able to say that she has been a friend to Prime Ministers and other very senior political figures. She has now been convicted, on overwhelming evidence, of two very serious offences of deliberately exceeding the spending limit on the short campaign in South Thanet in 2015, and then creating dishonest documents to hide what she had done. That was the election when Craig Mackinlay defeated Nigel Farage. No-one can know whether her misconduct had any effect on the outcome of that election, but she plainly intended that it would. Her offence is made worse by the fact that she created her dishonest documents and presented them to the candidate,

Craig Mackinlay, and his Agent, Nathan Gray for signing. They did so in good faith, not knowing what she had done. This placed them at grave risk of conviction, and is a significant aggravating feature in her case.

The overspend was very substantial.

There is no indication that Gove is seeking to change the law to prevent similar prosecutions, but there is a feeling amongst the Tories, especially on judgements over Brexit, that the Electoral Commission is out of control and is biased against them and their fellow travellers.

Many of us though, feel that the commission do not have enough powers and it needs to be beefed up, with the caveat that they are also given the resources to do their job.

By interfering in this way, Gove is treading a very fine line that will leave questions over the fairness and impartiality of every electoral process from now on. Does he really want to tread that path?