Peers have voted down amendments aimed at protecting the independence of the Electoral Commission, sparking fresh fears about the UK’s democratic process.
Boris Johnson’s government had been handed a damaging defeat in the House of Lords earlier this week, after peers voted against a plan which undermines the independence of the election watchdog.
The Electoral Commission itself has warned against the move, arguing that it would let ministers shape how electoral law applies to their own party and political opponents.
Labour frontbencher Baroness Hayman said the move “would allow political interference in the regulation of our elections… this simply cannot be allowed to happen”.
But after MPs overturned efforts to strip out controversial parts of the legislation, resistance to the plans also fell away in the House of Lords – which voted through the Elections Bill on Wednesday night.
Critics say that the unamended Elections Bill could now give ministers new and unchecked powers over the elections regulator, undermining free and fair elections in the UK.
Commenting on the vote, Naomi Smith – head of democracy campaign group Best for Britain – said: “Tonight was the last chance to protect the independence of the elections watchdog and with it free and fair elections in the U.K.
“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.”
Lord Blunkett, the former Labour home secretary, was among the key figures behind the Lords push to neuter the bill. Before the vote, he told the Observer that it represented a key moment in the defence of democracy.
“A free and fair election is the touchstone of any functioning democracy, which is why we [Labour] introduced the Electoral Commission despite having a large majority and the political ability to give Labour an advantage in future elections,” he said.
“Revoking that independence would set a dangerous precedent for current and future elections, and would give an unacceptable signal to the rest of the world.”
In an unusual move in February, the commission wrote a public letter to Michael Gove – the minister with responsibility for elections – saying the bill’s provisions were “inconsistent with the role that an independent electoral commission plays in a healthy democracy”.
It added: “This independence is fundamental to maintaining confidence and legitimacy in our electoral system.”
Polling undertaken by Best for Britain earlier this month revealed that 70 per cent of Brits believe the Electoral Commission should be fully independent of the government.