Monday, 14 July 2014

Is the Electoral Commission working for #indyref?

The Electoral Commission (EC) is responsible for ensuring that September's independence referendum is conducted fairly, and that participants adhere to the rules on funding and conduct as set out in the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013. Penalties for breaking these rules are harsh - individuals can be imprisoned for a significant period if convicted of some of the offences defined.

But there is a fundamental problem with prevention. Assessment of whether rules have been broken is largely post-hoc. Little or no action is taken during the campaign. There is no apparent prevention activity; merely the threat that after the vote everything will be checked and if things don't add up you'll need a good lawyer. Is such deterrence enough? Is it working?

For normal elections, this is arguably a workable model. The participants are political parties who generally have existed for a long time and plan to exist well into the future. Reputational risk is serious and genuinely feared, and most parties have developed robust internal systems to prevent contraventions. Individuals standing for election have a powerful disincentive to breaking the rules - they could have their electoral victory taken from them. The EC has little need to police during a campaign; it can merely tot everything up afterwards and mete out any justice required.

But in this independence referendum, things seem to me to be very different. The key participants, Yes Scotland and Better Together, have both been set up specifically for this event, and will almost certainly cease to exist shortly after. Many of the other registered participants - Wings Over Scotland, Vote No Borders and so on - are of a similarly disposable nature. Only the political parties have reputational risk, and it's clear that parties' existing systems are rolling into action as usual.

Individuals within the "disposable" campaigns will remain culpable, of course; but we need to look carefully at how that culpability might play out. Nobody here is in the position of an individual standing for election. And critically nobody is risking having any victory taken off them personally if they have done a bit of creative accounting. And if there is the risk of jail time - well, there are certainly participants in this debate who would thoroughly welcome martyrdom for their cause, and who could muster plenty of loud voices to paint any conviction as such.

Because here's the rub. If one or two of the campaign groups were discovered, post-September, to have mis-reported a bit of funding here, or co-ordinated where they shouldn't have there, the chance of that resulting in a re-run of the referendum are vanishingly small. There would be massive resistance on all sides to a re-run - for quite justifiable reasons. It would require evidence of major fraud for it to be even contemplated. Far more likely is that individuals would be given their punishments but the result would stand.

And so the issue of prevention is far more critical for this referendum than it is for a normal election. And yet there is very little evidence that the Electoral Commission is even slightly interested in it. They appear to be running this as a business-as-usual electoral campaign.

Does anyone care?

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Ed is on the bus

I have a few minutes to spare before heading out to speak to voters today, so I thought I'd jot down a few words about yesterday's visit from Ed Miliband, and his question and answer session at Newtongrange.


It was great to get the chance to talk to Ed about how the referendum campaign is going, as we travelled from Edinburgh to Midlothian with Anas Sarwar on Labour's referendum battle bus. He was clearly well-briefed, but keen to hear our impressions and concerns. As ever when I've spoken to him, he is far removed from the media caricature of wonkish awkwardness. He's smart, insightful and takes a long view.


We arrived with a lot of time to spare, and as Ed was doing media interviews and meet-and-greets, it was good to catch up with friends from across the Lothians Labour movement. Newtongrange is a fantastic resource, and I realise it must have been a long time since I was last there - lots of new facilities and improvements. Well worth a visit.


It's a striking setting for a talk, with light streaming in through massive windows, beyond which the preserved mine workings stand as a reminder of the industrial heritage this area has lost. Anas opened proceedings with a talk no less powerful for its familiarity, reminding us that the great achievements of the Labour movement have been the result of working together across the UK.


My online pal Margaret Curran stood up next to introduce the wonderful Davie Hamilton, and the affection in the room for him was palpable - here is a man who embodies Labour values and is rooted in the community he represents. No wonder the people of Midlothian don't want to vote Yes to lose his voice in our UK parliament. Both Margaret and Davie reminded us that Labour is in good heart and good voice in this campaign. We are united around a clear message, and it's a message the people of Scotland appreciate.


And then Ed stood up and, after speaking briefly about Davie, the campaign and the plans for 2015, opened the floor to questions. And this is where he shone. Everyone who raised their hand got a chance to speak, and we covered a wide range of areas from Trident to redistribution of wealth, to local devolution, plans for business growth and employment, and the sheer breadth of opportunity we have following a No vote to change Scotland for the better within the strength of the UK.

As we gradually left, there was a feeling from everyone I spoke to that this had been an uplifting, galvanising and positive contribution. Not everyone had expected it to be. But Ed came to listen and understand, and demonstrated to us all that he has the plan and the strength of character to deliver.

I got a lift home on the big red bus, and five minutes after walking in my husband said it had clearly been a good night, given the animated way I was describing it to him. It had. Sometimes this debate can be a hard slog of online fights and endless doorsteps. Sometimes we need a reminder of why we're doing it and who is standing alongside us. Last night gave me that, and looking out over Arthur's Seat at sunset I was very, very glad I went.