Rt Hon Bruce George was Labour MP for Walsall South from 1974 to 2010 and has led numerous international election observation missions. Julian Peel Yates OBE is a former lawyer, soldier and diplomat, who has led OSCE election observers in Georgia, Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Poland among others.
As two amongst Britain’s most experienced international election observers, who together have led more than 60 missions of election scrutiny in countries across the world in the last 15 years, we are writing in the shadow of the forthcoming general election to note that, despite its continuing assumption of moral superiority in its democratic practice, Britain remains in persistent breach of key international standards for the conduct of elections.
We British are deceiving ourselves if we believe in the innate superiority of our electoral system, law and practice. One need look no further than Tower Hamlets and widely publicised judicial comments in recent years over increasing instances of electoral corruption, to see the dangers of complacency. Whilst no system is perfect, and Britain’s practice is better than many, if Britain wishes to continue to exercise the right to criticise others, and avoid accusations of double standards, it is time that we put our own house in order.
Manifest defects, identified in objective international commentary on British electoral practice over recent years, include the following:
- Britain is not guaranteeing the secrecy of the ballot under UN, Council of Europe, OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and other instruments: unique serial numbered ballots recorded by law in a list identifying the specific voter for each ballot issued are an affront to the secrecy of the vote. Any unscrupulous council official in charge of voting materials after Election Day has the opportunity to establish at leisure how every single voter voted.
- Britain’s voting arrangements guarantee that ballots are structurally non-secret by law.
- The lack of any requirement for voters to provide any identity document or form of identity in order to vote provides gratuitous opportunities for voter fraud.
- The nature of the British electoral system combined with the major political parties’ approach to campaigning means that only in some 250 of 650 constituencies (i.e. the marginal seats) is there a meaningful, competitive political contest.
- Defective voter registration processes, much criticised internationally, raise widespread concerns about potential individual under-representation, in particular for first time voters, students, those in rented properties, and eligible voters born outside the United Kingdom.
- Defective postal balloting mechanisms in mainland Britain, in contrast to the reformed practice in Northern Ireland, challenge the integrity of the ballot.
- Britain is arguably not meeting its international obligation to guarantee the equality of the vote. At the last general election in 2010 it took on average approximately 35,000 voters to elect a Conservative MP, 33,000 for a Labour MP, and 120,000 for a Liberal Democrat MP (10.7m, 8.6m and 6.8m voters respectively). UKIP, for example, received over 900,000 votes, but no seat.
The best mechanism to review British electoral shortcomings might be a Royal Commission, to be established by government after the general election.