The Electoral Commission has admitted it is “concerned” about its independence after the government passed a new law to place it under ministerial control.
Changes to the Elections Bill, which passed the House of Lords on Wednesday night, will hand the government significant powers to direct the election watchdog’s priorities.
Critics say the changes represent a grave threat to free and fair elections – and amount to an “authoritarian” power grab that will let ministers shape how electoral law applies to political opponents and their own party.
Under the legislation, the secretary of state will be able to issue a “statement of purpose” that directs the Commission’s priorities. It will also automatically add a government minister to the committee that oversees and scrutinises the work of the Commission.
Peers defeated the law on Monday, but it was sent back to the upper house just two days later – reportedly catching opposition parties off guard.
Just 67 Labour peers turned up to vote against eh measure, alongside 70 Lib Dems, 33 cross benchers and three rebel Tories.
Responding to the vote, a spokesperson for the Electoral Commission told The Independent: “As the political finance regulator and the body which oversees free and fair elections, the way we work and our decisions must remain independent.
“This underpins fairness and trust in the electoral system, as well as public and cross party confidence in the Commission.
“We remain concerned about the potential impact of this measure, and look to the formal consultation on the government’s proposed statement once that is available.
“All parties have stated during the parliamentary consideration of the Elections Bill that the independence of the Electoral Commission is vital to the functioning of a healthy democracy.
“The Commission will continue to act in an independent and impartial way in order to help maintain public confidence in elections across the UK.”
‘Slide into authoritarianism’
Naomi Smith, chief executive campaign group Best for Britain, said: “Last night was the last chance to protect the independence of the elections watchdog and with it free and fair elections in the UK.
“Despite the enormous efforts of a cross party, cross organisational resistance to the government’s authoritarian power grab, tonight Johnson’s regime succeeded in its latest pursuit to dodge accountability.
“There is now an urgent need to remove this government and undo the damage they have wrought on our institutions and public trust in politics. Opposition parties must work together to make this a reality.”
Kyle Taylor, director of campaign group Fair Vote UK, said that the government had “voted to officially end the independence of the Electoral Commission” – and that the new powers mean ministers “can effectively rig election rules in their favour”.
“This is how countries slide into authoritarianism,” he said. “First you take control of the institutions, then you rig them in your favour and ban noisy protest so people can’t fight back. It’s a dark day for democracy.”