Democracy campaigners have urged the Conservative Party to abandon threats to abolish the Electoral Commission and “reset” its relationship with the electoral watchdog following the departure of the prime minister’s senior aide Dominic Cummings.
In a letter to Michael Gove the leaders of six organisations said an independent elections regulator is a “cornerstone of a functioning democracy” and warned that bringing it under the auspices of the government risked its independence.
The departure of the combative Mr Cummings from his role as Mr Johnson’s most senior adviser has been billed as a chance for the prime minister to “reset” his government.
In the correspondence, seen by The Independent, the groups, including Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society urged the cabinet minister to reject proposals put forward by Conservative HQ earlier this year.
Former Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, who is now director of Unlock Democracy, said: “With Cummings gone, this is the perfect moment for the government to reset its relationship with the Electoral Commission and acknowledge that the UK needs a strong, well-resourced, independent Electoral Commission.”
He added: “Threatening to shut it down, simply because it fined the Tory party for breaching the rules, is a tactic worthy of President Putin, not the British PM.”
The Electoral Commission also fined Vote Leave, whose campaign director was Mr Cummings and which denied wrongdoing, £61,000.
The letter comes after Amanda Milling, the chair of the Conservative Party, claimed in the summer the watchdog was “not fit for purpose” and suggested either revamping the body or abolishing it entirely.
Ms Milling said the party had made a submission to the government’s advisory body – the Committee on Standards in Public Life – which will publish its own review into electoral regulation, including the role of the commission, in June 2021.
Setting out “several flaws”, the Conservative chair accused the commission of being “too willing to push for the prosecution of political and party activists” and that that had led to “lengthy and often unnecessary investigations”.
She added: “We propose that legislation is amended so that the government would publish a regulatory policy statement, setting out the Electoral Commission’s remit and goals – as is seen with the energy and water regulators, Ofgem and Ofwat.
“This framework would allow for clear ministerial and parliamentary oversight, whilst providing a check and balance against election gerrymandering or conflicts of interest. If the Electoral Commission fails to make these changes and do the job it was set up to do then the only option would be to abolish it.”
In their letter to Mr Gove, organisations opposing the Conservatives’ proposals, however, said: “The Electoral Commission does need to be reformed. But reforms must ensure that the regulator has the powers it needs to ensure a level playing field in elections, and combat the kind of activity we have seen in recent years of parties and referendum campaigns breaking the law with no meaningful consequences.
“Having an independent elections regulator is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy. Bringing the remit of the Electoral Commission under the control of the government risks the regulator’s independence.
“This is why we call on Michael Gove, as the minister responsible for elections, to reject these proposals and instead to give the Electoral Commission the powers it needs to ensure that elections are free and fair.”
Labour’s own submission to the review said scrapping the commission would be a “harmful and worrying step for the integrity of our democracy”, claiming: “The move comes straight out of the Republican Party playbook, threatening the basic tenets of scrutiny and accountability in our democracy.”
Shadow minister for voter engagement Cat Smith also told The Independent: “The Conservatives are trying to close down integral parts of our democracy. Their threat to abolish the Electoral Commission is a harmful and worrying step for scrutiny and accountability, and Labour strongly oppose it.”
A spokesperson for the Conservative Party said: “The Conservative Party submission to the Committee on Standards in Public Life outlines how we believe the Electoral Commission regime needs reform.
“The commission needs to become more accountable to parliament following the example of other regulators, and focus its core task of ensuring probity in the field of donations and spending.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson added: “We welcome the review being carried out by the independent committee on standards in public life, which will no doubt receive a range of ideas reflecting everyone’s interest in sound electoral regulation.
“The government is committed to keeping our elections secure and fit for the modern age. As part of this, we keep the powers of the Electoral Commission under review to ensure it is able to discharge its responsibilities effectively.”