Theresa May’s meeting with Putin and the idea of a new normal (UPDATED following the meeting)

UPDATE 28/6/19 The meeting happened and here is the read out from the Prime Minister’s spokesperson.

Confirmation that a UK-Russia meeting will be held on the margins of the G20 in Japan this weekend in a bid to re-set the fractured relationship between the UK and Russia is encouraging and will be welcomed by many, but there are a lot of issues to get past if any sort of regular relationship is to be re-established. If temperatures do thaw then it will be time to get used the idea of ‘a new normal’.

At the top of the agenda, there needs to be some resolution to the issue of the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury. Talks must begin there in order to satisfy not just the UK, but Russia too, Russia has been impacted by the sanctions that were imposed by a wide range of Western countries after the poisoning, perhaps the most tangible achievement of the entire Theresa May premiership. As time passes these sanctions will start to pale as Russia finds a way around them and targeted individuals are replaced. The decision this week by the Council of Europe to readmit Russia will be seen as the first major crack in the dam. But for the moment they are still having an impact and Russia wants them gone.

Talks on Salisbury won’t necessarily produce the outcome that May wants. Against all the evidence, Russia has consistently denied any involvement in the poisoning and won’t change their tune now. But there may be a chance to reach a form of words that moves things forward. A pledge by Russia to take action to prevent any such attacks happening in the future, perhaps.

But the strains in the relationship are not just about Salisbury. Russian cyber attacks on elections and other state institutions are a concern, as is aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere.

The cyber attacks issue may reach the same conclusion as Salisbury. Russia will continue to deny involvement in the face of evidence to the contrary. But whilst it is pretty clear that Russia has developed the capability to use cyber as a weapon at many levels, it has used a range of arms-length companies to do much of this work and no longer totally controls what is happening in the field. The Russian Federation has long been gripped by a power vertical, a top down control of everything that happens, but that control has shattered in a few key areas. Introducing deniability in special operations is one such, as former state officers are setting themselves up to conduct clandestine projects at the request of the Kremlin. And Russia is not the only country where extensive cyber capabilities have been developed. Although Chinese targets tend to be of a different nature, it is clear that they too have the ability to use cyber as an offensive tool. There are other countries and private concerns that are working in the field too, including the UK which is said to be ahead of most countries.

So Putin may feel that he can continue deny responsibility for attacks on the US elections, Brexit referendum and so on. And it is clear that Russia does not believe it needs to play by the rules on free and fair internal elections, despite the international commitments it has made. What May and others will want to see, however, is some sort of agreement that elections in the West are off-limits.

This, however, creates a significant problem for Theresa May as she and the west have been loathe to accept Russian suggestions that there be defined spheres of influence. In particular, Russia sees Ukraine, Belarus, the Caucasus and central Asian republics as ‘their’ territory. Although NATO expansion into these areas might not be immediately on the cards, it is clear that blocking a return of a Russian-led union is a key goal, alongside a move to western style democracy for those that want it. Ukraine very clearly wants to move in this direction and Russia is determined to stop it. A deal which alludes to spheres of influence, even if it gives some peace to the West, cannot be acceptable to relatively new found allies in the East.

If some sort of rapprochement is achieved then it will not be a return to ‘business as usual’. Particularly as this means different things to each side. Relations between Russia and the West have been in a continued state of flux since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The last time there was real certainty was during the Brezhnev era. For most in the West, they probably mean the mid-nineties when Russia appeared to be in a state of liberal capitalism and business could be done. But Russians often look back to that time with far less than fond memories as ordinary citizens were struggling to get by whilst the oligarchs built their empires.

Instead we are likely to see a new normal as the relationship re-sets itself according to new rules and accepted mores. These rules will take some time to bed in and will be continue to be defined by the actions of nation states. But a willingness by May and Putin to start the ball rolling with a formal meeting is the only way that a period of some stability will be possible.

Brexit Party says it will take Peterborough result to court over ‘ballot fraud’

Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is going to court to challenge the result of the by-election in Peterborough earlier this month. Such a move is high profile, but very difficult to prove and can be risky even if successful.

At the time of the election, the Brexit Party, which lost by 683 votes, claimed that there had been fraud connected with postal votes. Five complaints have been made to police – although it is not clear whether any or all of these have been made by the Brexit Party – and so far three of these complaints have been dismissed.

Both Nigel Farage and Brexit Party chair Richard Tice have spoken in broad terms about corruption linked to the by-election, but have not given any specific details of what they allege took place. Mr Tice is quoted in the Guardian as saying:

“There are a lot of rumours, a lot of hearsay, some of which is just that. There is evidence emerging. That will be presented to the electoral court. It’s wrong to prejudge that, or announce that now. It’s only by having a full petition that we can truly get to the bottom of what may or may not have happened here, but also the lessons for the broader system.”

Election watchers in the UK will be looking closely to see what details emerge if the election petition is lodged as the Brexit Party have said it will be. In order to make any progress, the party will need to be able to make and prove detailed and specific allegations. Even then, the result will only be overturned and a fresh election ordered if the judge is convinced that the outcome has been affected by illegal activities. Even if the Brexit Party were able to prove that some fraudulent votes were cast (itself a high burden), it does not mean that a re-run would happen.

When new elections do happen, it does not always go to plan for the party which has brought and won the court case. The most recent case concerning a Parliamentary election was in Oldham East and Saddleworth in 2010 when former minister Phil Woolas was found to have made untrue statements about an opponent. Voters backed Labour in the re-run. And in 1997, after the Conservatives brought a court case over the result in Winchester where they were declared to have lost by 2 votes, the re-election produced a much more emphatic result – the small matter of a 21,556 majority for the Liberal Democrats.

Sorry Nick, but there is more that Facebook can and should be doing.

Nick Clegg was on the Today Programme this morning to talk about his job with Facebook and its role in facilitating interference with elections and referendums in the UK and around the world. 

Clegg says there is no evidence that Russia influenced the result of the Brexit vote using Facebook. 

To quote Mandy Rice Davies – Well he would say that, wouldn’t he.

Clegg appears to blame deep-rooted Euroscepticism for the outcome. He also argues for greater regulation of social media and tech firms saying there should be new rules of the road on privacy, election rules, use of personal data and what constitutes hate speech.

Clearly there is no single reason why the UK voted to leave. Pinning all the blame on Facebook, Russia, Cambridge Analytica or anyone else is misleading. However, there does appear to be significant evidence that the last of these had access to a huge amount of personal data, harvested via Facbook, and sought to use it via campaigns to influence people’s voting. The evidence of Russian involvement is not quite so strong as that Russia sought to influence the 2016 US Presidential Election (where it is undeniable), but it is clear that Facebook was used as a platform for illegal campaigning, even if unwittingly.

And it is also clear that whatever happened in the UK referendum, there have been many cases of outside forces seeking to affect national elections via Facebook and other online activity. The Macedonian name referendum and recent Ukrainian Presidential election are just two examples.

Clegg is right that the should be better regulation that reflects the modern world. But he is wrong to imply that there are no rules in existence at the moment. The UK, as most countries, has a vast amount of electoral law that codifies who can campaign and how much they can spend. That these laws were written before the advent of the public internet doesn’t matter. If the law can apply to paper leaflets then, broadly, it can also apply to internet communications.

Difficult though it may be for Facebook, a company that operates in 150+ countries and therefore with 150+ sets of different election laws, it is the responsibility of everyone to obey the applicable law in the countries in which you operate. Facebook’s reaction until now, however, has been to place itself above the law. It has proposed (and is gradually implementing) two significant changes, requiring election related advertising on its site to be clearly labelled as such and reporting on who is paying for political advertising. Both of these changes are to be welcomed, but they are not yet universally applied. And, crucially, they do not accord with the detail of election law in each country. In seeking to apply its own solution, Facebook is thumbing its nose at elections around the world.

It is not just the main Facebook site that is doing so. WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram and many other social media platforms also have their problems. Some of these will need new legislation to solve, but most simply require the company behind them to read and adapt to local laws.

Has the UK failed some voters?

A big caveat for this article – I’m relying on news reports. And whilst there are multiple sources, this is not a substitute for a proper election observation.

But nevertheless, it does seem that many of those UK citizens who live overseas and who wanted to vote in the European Parliamentary election did not receive their ballot paper in good time and also that many of those EU citizens who were in the UK and wanted to vote here were prevented from doing so.

Let’s take each of those situations in turn. First up, UK citizens voting from abroad.

The law is that to be on the electoral role a UK citizen has to be normally resident at a UK address or have left to live overseas within the last 15 years. In the latter case, a person will retain a place on the electoral roll in the council and constituency they last lived in.

Until a few years ago, ballot papers would not be sent overseas and such electors would need to appoint a proxy – someone to vote for them who lives in the UK. But now they can be sent abroad, but at the risk of different postal services – you take the chance of the ballot paper being stuck in the post in either direction. But there is a good faith argument to be made. The council sending out the ballot should be doing so early enough in the process to give the voter every chance of receiving it and returning it in time for it to be counted. In this election a number of authorities sent out postal votes very early – at a time when the government was still claiming the election might be cancelled. So it was perfectly possible to ensure overseas electors had the maximum chance of casting a vote. However it is alleged that some councils did not send out ballots to overseas electors in good time. 

I suspect that this is going to be a matter that will have to be investigated on a council by council basis. They all keep records as to when each batch of ballots are sent out and so this will be relatively easy to do.

I’ll come back to what could be done for the future, but a number of current MEPs have suggested that returning officers accept any ballot that is received before the count begins on Sunday. That might be a sensible compromise.

There are also the cases of EU citizens living in the UK. The law says that an EU citizen can choose to vote where they live or in their country of citizenship if the two are different. But they can only vote once and the country concerned must have a process to enable a challenge in the case of an accusation of multiple voting.

So in the UK, an EU citizen must first be on the electoral roll – as a UK citizen has to be. The UK interpretation of the ‘challenge’ rule is to require them also to fill in a form (known as UC1 or EC6) to formalise their choice to vote in the UK and renounce their right to vote in that election in their country of citizenship. A couple of former Lib Dem MEPs – Andrew Duff and Sarah Ludford – have suggested this is a case of ‘gold-plating’, ie making a simple requirement far more complex than it needs to be.

What appears to have happened is that some EU citizens were not made aware of this requirement, including some who specifically asked about a form but were told by their council that they were ok to vote and didn’t need to fill it in. Others were sent the form far too late to return it by the deadline of 7th May. And there appear to have been some presiding officers who got confused about the rules and mis-informed legitimate voters, telling them they could not vote.

The Electoral Commission has laid the blame squarely with the government. They said that the government knew about this confusion but, because of the intention to leave the EU before these elections, chose not to do anything about it. And once participation became the only option, it was too late to do anything about it.

So what can be done? To be honest, very little that can give votes to those who missed out. The principle in the UK is that elections are only ever overturned or re-run in cases where it can be proved that the result was changed by fraud or official failure. That is a pretty high bar and almost impossible to clear in an election spread across regions of the UK.

But, the case for legal action does not begin and end with a re-run. Managing elections is an official duty and so there may be a case for investigation to see if that official duty has been breached. The standard in such cases is pretty low – that an official ‘is guilty of an act or omission in breach of that duty’ (RPA 1950 s.32 as amended). So if it can be proved beyond reasonable doubt that a returning officer or registration officer failed in their duty to properly manage the process then they run the risk of a fine or even jail time.

I’m not going to suggest whether any individual should be taken to court. There are those (including Democracy Volunteers and the electors affteced) who know more about each case. But if such breaches did occur in an election being observed by a recognised group then you could be sure that they would be highlighted in the observation report and recommendations would be made for the future. Such recommendations might include:

  • Ensuring that all presiding officers, electoral registration officers and returning officers are properly trained and resourced for the specific election they are managing. Presiding officers should have up to date manuals for the right election to hand.
  • Ending the haphazard nature of local decision making for national elections. There should be a defined timetable managed by the Electoral Commission with which each returning officer must comply.
  • Local councils should understand the precious nature of the elections they are managing. Giving incorrect information to electors – even if done unintentionally – should be regarded as a serious failing.

Above all, these reports show that UK elections are not perfect. We might not have the same problems that exist in other countries, but we do have issues and we should acknowledge the fact and seek to address them as soon as possible.

Thai election candidates seek attention with name changes

The Guardian reports the news that 15 candidates in Thailand’s general election have changed their names to either Thaksin or Yingluck – the names of previous Prime Ministers. According to the paper, the tactic is to make candidates memorable to voters in a country where campaign laws are pretty restrictive.

theresa-may-lord-buckethead-united-kingdom-electionIn the UK we have some history of candidates changing their names, although few have tried this particular tactic. Lord Buckethead is one name that appeared on a ballot paper but probably wasn’t on the candidate’s birth certificate.

More controversial was the practice of spoof party names which closely mirrored those of real parties. In the 1994 European Elections, Richard Huggett stood as a Literal Democrat candidate for the Devon and East Plymouth seat, taking more votes than the Conservative Party margin over the Liberal Democrats, leading to a legal challenge by the Liberal Democrat candidate. The subsequent 1998 Registration of Political Parties Act ensured that this sort of thing couldn’t happen again in the future.

In other countries, similar tactics were also used. In the Russian Duma elections of 2003, newly elected President Vladimir Putin faced real challenges to his authority. His United Russia Party needed to win or he ran the risk of being a one term president. The main challengers were the Liberal Democrat Party of Russia (a fiercely nationalist party which, now known simply as LDPR, continues to contest elections under its leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky) and the Communist Party. New parties – Rodina and The Party of Russia’s Rebirth – were created, allegedly aiming to draw votes from both the Liberal Democrats and Communists.

UK may be forced to hold MEP elections if Theresa May’s deal defeated

The Guardian leads on the obvious – that when Theresa May’s Brexit deal gets voted down on Tuesday there will need to be an extension of time to allow the UK to come up with an alternative plan. The current Article 50 declaration runs out of time on March 30th and, if there is no agreement by then, the default option of a no deal Brexit automatically kicks in. Whilst it seemed like a good idea at the time to hold the Government’s (and MP’s) feet to the fire, it is now the general view that a no deal Brexit should only be an avenue taken by choice, not by absence of any positive decision to the contrary.

So if there is an extension (a period of a few months has been mentioned) the next real deadline for the EU is when new MEPs meet for the first time at the beginning of July. And if the UK is still a member, even if only temporarily, then it will need MEPs.

Theresa May might well believe that she can use a couple of extra months to get a slightly better deal. But will that be enough to get sufficient MPs on board or will we simply be kicking the can down the road? If May cannot win on Tuesday then she will have a maximum of one more chance at securing Parliamentary approval. She will want to make sure she has every chance to get it right this time. A delay of only two months won’t guarantee that, whilst six months or so just might.

But this is, fundamentally a blog about elections, so let’s return to that – and the thorny problem of the British MEPs.

The current batch expect to be out of a job after the end of March. And, as suggested above, an extension of a couple of months won’t be a problem logistically. But what if the UK remains a part of the EU – for whatever reason – after that.

There are a number of options:

  • The UK could do without any MEP representation
  • The current MEPs could carry on
  • New MEPs could be appointed rather than elected
  • New elections could be held

None of these options is exactly easy. For a member state to do without MEPs goes against the whole point of the EU. If the UK government could assert that it would only be for a few weeks then they might have some logic when the cost of new elections is considered. But I’m guessing this would not be looked upon favourably by the EU at a time when May will need as many favours as possible. I would also expect this option to lead to a court case from Remain supporters.

Keeping the current MEPs in post or appointing replacements is another short term solution, but is anti-democratic. It may also antagonise other countries and lead to court cases.

The only solution which is unlikely to lead to court cases and opposition within the EU is for the UK to fall into line with the other 27 countries and hold elections at the end of May. The Prime Minister will, of course, not even countenance this option until after she has been defeated on Tuesday. But after that she will be forced to. Her first instinct will be to say that new elections won’t be needed as she is sure that the deal will be done in time – whatever that deal is. But how much confidence will there be behind such a statement? But even a quick deal almost certainly means  a period after the beginning of July when the UK is part of the EU and will therefore need to have MEPs. 

That’s the technical side of things. What about the politics?

Neither of the two largest parties will want European Parliament elections. For both the Conservatives and Labour it will force them to have a clear position on EU membership that is out of step with most party members and voters. Jeremy Corbyn has been focussed exclusively on calling for a general election because he knows he can win on issues such as the NHS and jobs but that his position on the EU is unpopular among many Labour supporters. On the Conservative side, most members favour as hard a Brexit as possible and won’t be happy to campaign for new MEPs on the basis of the May deal.

The Lib Dems, SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru should be much more in favour of these elections. But campaigns cost money to parties as well as the Exchequer and the smaller parties may be hesitant about a full scale effort when those elected may well only be in place for a short while and a 2019 general election is also possible.

Perhaps the only party that will be happy about these elections would be UKIP. A party that has lost almost all of its media coverage in recent months would suddenly become relevant again, even if it loses MEPs compared with the last elections as the group has seen almost half of their MEPs defect. Re-engaging with the media, gaining vote share at a time when a general election is possible, electing new and loyal MEPs – UKIP will love it.

But what of the party’s erstwhile leader Nigel Farage? The ‘Face of Brexit’ has announced that he is no longer a member of UKIP after leader Gerard Batten appointed Stephen Yaxley-Lennon as an advisor. Surely, if there are to be new MEP elections then he will want to be part of it, especially as he is likely to be squeezed from most media if he is not a contestant. Talk of Farage joining the Conservatives has been doing the rounds, but that unlikely scenario becomes an impossibility if he has to then speak in support of something other than the hardest Brexit. So does he swallow his pride and rejoin UKIP or start a new party? My bet would be on the latter and this is likely to have the consequence of dragging some current Conservatives along with him.

So whilst the law might require Theresa May to hold elections to the European Parliament in May, there is no upside for her in such a move. She will fight the proposal with all her might even if the best chance of her securing something approximating to her deal is an extension of six months or so. Whether it is a court case or the ticking of the clock into the new European Parliament era, my prediction is that the UK will be forced to hold MEP elections either on or after the due date.

UPDATE: Nigel Farage has said he will indeed be looking for a new party and will stand if the UK participates in MEP elections this year.

False election expenses in Thanet land Conservative party worker with suspended jail time

Elections are only fair if the rules are clear and all sides play by them. 

What happened in 2015 in the UK General Election clearly broke those rules. The Electoral Commission, and now the courts, have found that the Conservative party broke the law as regards spending limits in the Thanet South constituency. Whether others did similar in other seats and at other elections is suspected but not proven – at least not in court.

Michael Crick and Channel 4 News have led the way in investigating the Thanet case and their 11 minute wrap up report is well worth watching.

In short, the allegation was that many thousands of pounds of spending on the local campaign effort was either not declared or was listed as national campaigning. The limit locally for the general election was about £15,000. The limit for each party across the whole country was £20 million. It was claimed that many activists went to Thanet to campaign in the seat there for the local candidate and that their hotel bills, wages and other costs were not declared on the local return. The MP, his agent and a party campaign officer were all charged with various counts in regard to these allegations and all denied them.

The court found the MP and the agent not guilty but convicted the party campaign officer of two counts of encouraging a false expenses return. Without being in court for the entire case and on the jury it is impossible to know the exact minds of those who reached the verdict. One possibility (and I would suggest a likely one) is that they decided that the party campaign official was in charge and made the spending decisions and that the MP and agent unwittingly went along with her suggestions, not knowing that they were false or otherwise prohibited by law.

The Conservative Party has suggested that this case shows that the law is unclear and needs to be tightened. Others have said that this was an example of deliberate and blatant over-spending and that similar has happened in other cases too. My suggestion is that both are true.

It seemed to me while following this case (although see the caveat above) that it was quite clear that the Party chose to put national staff into the seat to campaign for the local candidate. This was local campaigning and should have been declared as such.

What is less clear is what aspects should have been declared locally. If there were leaflets advocating a vote for the local MP then these are obviously local spending. Hotel and travel bills, if they were in any way paid for or refunded by the party, would also seem to be appropriate to declare. And with paid staff it seems prudent that if they want to keep their wages off the local return then they should be taking holiday when they are fighting a local seat or demonstrating that such campaigning is happening in non-working hours. But there is confusion about these aspects – often manufactured by the parties – just as there is with the case of busloads of activists whose transport and food is paid for by the party centrally.

So a clear declaration by the Electoral Commission is needed. They should be setting out what they will choose to define as national spending and what must be accounted for locally. Such a declaration should understand the reality on the ground when it comes to aspects such as party leader visits, but it is long overdue. What I suspect will happen is that the Commission will continue to prevaricate and the parties – who have no incentive to clear things up – will do similar. 

When people question why the UK does not receive top marks when it comes to surveys of the quality of democracy in the country, it is aspects like this that are to blame.