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The Electoral Conduct Inquiry: Results

This is a cross-post from Politics Home by Natascha Engel MP – 29th October 2013


Chair of the APP Inquiry into Electoral Conduct and Labour MP Natascha Engel spells out how Britian can be a world-leader in facing down discrimination

Today, the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Electoral Conduct which I chaired published its recommendations. Its main focus was on racism and discrimination in political campaigning.

We have found that campaigning during elections is positive on the whole, but we were shocked at some of the stories we heard when things went wrong. From early on in our inquiry, we were convinced that work needs to be done by Government, Parliament, the political parties, but most of all by the Electoral Commission and the Equality and Human Rights Commission to stamp out race hate and discrimination from political campaigning.

Our inquiry was launched as a result of a previous all-party report in 2006 on anti-Semitism which found worrying evidence of anti-Semitism in election campaigns. Our predecessor inquiry recommended that the Electoral Commission produce a code of conduct.

The Commission’s response? It said that it found the recommendation unwelcome and unenforceable. We have therefore tried to come at this from a wider angle by including all victims of race hate and discrimination during election campaigns and bring forward recommendations that are both welcome and enforceable. We hope that the Electoral Commission’s response will be more positive this time.

Our recommendations have focused on putting freedom of speech and expression first, not to prevent robust campaigning but to start a cultural shift in the political parties that would help identify and deal with unacceptable behaviour more quickly.

Britain should be a world-leader in facing down discrimination, so we have suggested that the Equality and Human Rights Commission should bring all registered political parties together and agree to have:

• One named person in each party who can be contacted with complaints – either from other political parties or members of the public

• A clear timetable for investigating any complaints

• Publication of the outcomes of any investigation and if any sanctions have been applied.

We found that when members of the public complained, their concerns were often not properly dealt with or even registered. This would be a vital first step. We are delighted that the Equality and Human Rights Commission have responded so positively to our recommendations and have tabled them for discussion at their next board meeting. We look forward to hearing the results.

The evidence we heard from the previous Commission for Racial Equality about their proactive work they used to do in keeping records up-to-date and working with minority groups and individuals to combat racism and discrimination was lost when the organisation changed to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. We hope that they will look at this and start doing their excellent work again as they did in the past.

We also called for more and better training, support and safeguards for candidates. We heard some shocking testimony of anti-Semitism from Lee Scott MP and the former Labour Minister, Parmjit Dhanda whose children found a severed pig’s head in his garden the day after he lost his seat in Gloucester.

While the political parties are discussing press freedoms in the aftermath of the phone hacking scandal, we hope that they will also consider widening out conduct of non-broadcast media during election campaigns. The Advertising Standards Agency used to regulate these materials but doesn’t any more.

This report is published during the passage of the Lobbying Bill. Because of the political storm that surrounds this legislation, we recommend that the Electoral Commission should do some independent research into what action needs to be taken on non-party campaigners. This was an area that raised serious concerns for us and we felt needs some urgent attention.

Our inquiry is unique. It is the first time parliamentarians have systemically analysed electoral life with a view to eliminating racism and discrimination from it. We achieved cross-party consensus on issues of vital importance to British democratic life. We will keep up the pressure on electoral and equalities institutions to play their part. And we will keep championing these issues within our own political parties.

The report is available now from www.electoralconduct.com or downloadable here.

Natascha Engel MP is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry Into Electoral Conduct

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All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Electoral Conduct: The Report

The report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Electoral Conduct is available to view by clicking here.

A press release to accompany the report can be found here.

The chair of the APPG Against Antisemitism, John Mann MP commissioned the Parliamentary Inquiry into Electoral Conduct. The purpose of the inquiry was to investigate and evaluate the effectiveness of existing lines of responsibility and accountability in managing elections and, specifically, charges of misconduct during elections with a particular focus on racism and discrimination.

The members of the inquiry were: Stuart Andrew MP, Lord John Alderdice, Lord Jeremy Beecham, Angie Bray MP (Vice-Chair), David Burrowes MP, Natascha Engel MP (Chair), Lilian Greenwood MP, Rt Hon David Lammy MP, Naomi Long MP, Seema Malhotra MP, Andrew Stunell OBE MP, Dr. Eilidh Whiteford MP

Press coverage of the inquiry is online here and other details are here.

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All-Party Electoral Conduct Inquiry: The Rationale

This is a cross-post from the Huffington Post by John Mann MP:

In 2006, a cross-party group of MPs reported on their Inquiry into anti-semitism which I had commissioned. That report featured 35 recommendations for government, parliament and civil society. A great number of those recommendations have been successfully actioned, but one in particular has proven difficult to implement.

The report advised that the Electoral Commission should: “[…] draw[s] up a contract of acceptable behaviour which outlines the duty of all election candidates to exercise due care when addressing issues such as racism, community relations and minorities during political campaigning.”

In the government’s 2007 response to the Inquiry they advised that this matter was one for the Electoral Commission. The commission has advised that codes beyond the reach of the law were unenforceable by them. The issue can therefore only be resolved by a clear code agreed and enforced by the political parties. In other words each political party keeps its own house in order, using a transparent process agreed by all parties.

To that end, I have commissioned a new inquiry into electoral conduct, with a particular focus on discrimination – in all forms, not just anti-semitism. In doing so, I have drawn on the lessons learned from the previous inquiry. We have a respected chair in Natascha Engel MP who leads the backbench business committee. We have a group of distinguished parliamentarians from both houses and we have representation from five of the parties represented in our parliament.

This cross-party approach is key, especially given electoral malpractice is a cross-party blight. One does not have to look very far to find examples of conduct unbecoming of public representatives and their agents.

The 2004 campaign for Bethnal Green and Bow was marred by what was described as anti-semitic campaigning on the part of some campaigners against Oona King, the then Labour candidate.

The Labour party circulated proposed elections posters in 2005 of then Conservative Party leader Michael Howard depicted as a Fagin-like character. Whilst concerns were raised at the time, there remains a vacuum of responsibility for election-time publications. Neither OFCOM nor the PCC have taken responsibility, deferring to the political parties to self-police.

In 2010, ex-MP Andrew Pelling who had the whip removed by the Conservative party after serious allegations were made against him by his ex-wife, had his depression used against him in a briefing widely distributed by local Conservatives.

Then in 2012, the Liberal Democrats issued a leaflet in south-west London describing a ‘straight-fight’ between their party’s candidate and the Conservative candidate also standing for the council who happened to be gay. Stonewall CEO, Ben Summerskill suggested there were “things whispered on doorsteps” in Kingston that would be shocking to many. The ‘straight fight’ or ‘straight choice’ mantra was used during the 1983 Bermondsey by-election in which Simon Hughes faced Peter Tatchell. Hughes has since apologised for what he said were inappropriate leaflets.

Part of the problem in investigating electoral conduct is that it is broadly unquantifiable. High profile cases like those above make the press but many other stories are not publicised – Lee Scott MP for example spoke in a parliamentary debate about a leaflet distributed in his constituency claiming he was an “enemy of Islam” alongside a picture of him in a Jewish head covering. This inquiry is an opportunity to reach a better understanding of the extent of the problem.

The purpose of the inquiry however, is not to drag the parties through the mud, to shut down free speech or to exasperate with tails of misconduct. Rather, we hope to bring to the fore examples of good and replicable practice. Working outside of an election cycle, we would like to see considered thought given to a transparent, workable and enforceable framework on electoral conduct which can be agreed by the political parties. This will give clarity for candidates and agents, for the parties and ultimately confidence to constituents about how concerns will be addressed.

The call for evidence has been issued and details are available at www.antisemitism.org.uk

John Mann MP is the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism. He tweets @JohnMannMP and the group can be found @APPGAA.

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