Amendment to the Motion

Part of Electoral Commission Strategy and Policy Statement - Motion to Approve – in the House of Lords am 6:30 pm ar 6 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Ceidwadwyr 6:30, 6 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, first, I apologise to the House because I will speak for longer than I would normally do in such debates. Secondly, if there are any Latin scholars in the Chamber, it would be useful for the latter part of my speech if they could let me know the plural of “Spartacus”. I hope this will become clear.

This is a bittersweet moment, as the noble Lord, Lord Khan, said. For those of us who participated in the debate on the Elections Bill, the contribution of Lord Judge was truly—and I can use only one word, a modern phraseology—awesome. Whether you agreed or disagreed, it was a joy to sit and listen to it. I happened to agree with it and found it a fascinating experience. I am so sorry that he is not here now.

I said that this moment is bittersweet because in the speech I made after Lord Judge’s, I balanced the difficulties of airing criticism of the Electoral Commission that pertained at that time. I have never been so publicly critical of any organisation as I was on that occasion. I described it as “institutionally arrogant”. Therefore, I have sympathy with what the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, just said—but it applied to a different Electoral Commission. The personnel have changed substantially. I pay credit to its current chair John Pullinger and its previous chief executive Shaun McNally for turning it around to become an organisation it would now be impossible to describe in those words. It is efficient and effective and responds to queries very quickly. I will come to that in a moment.

I listened to the debate on this subject in the other House. On several occasions, the Minister referred to the wording in the document we are debating as “benign”. Everything is benign in the hands of those who are benign, but if you happen to be malign you can use the words that may appear benign to others and dramatically change the whole process—that is what I fear.

However, I will give the body of my speech over to something that is the responsibility of several bodies, including the Electoral Commission: opinion polls which are anonymously funded and set out specifically to influence politics in one form or another.

Democracy in this country is strong. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and I agree on many things, but I wish he would not cite a number of things that relate to other matters in one form or another. However, I am not going to take issue with those matters because I will cover an issue on which I think he and I and a number of Members of this House strongly agree. It is the recent YouGov Telegraph poll. As far as I am concerned, it is antidemocratic. We have a strong democracy. We want to maintain it in one form or another. The noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Khan, and I may view differently certain elements of our electoral law, but I think everybody in this Chamber wants to protect the strong democracy we have in this country, the openness that is available for all of us to express views whatever they may happen to be. We can disagree, but we should disagree courteously, listen to the alternatives and then go forward, but you disagree openly. What you do not do is start funding opinion polls where there is no accountable source of money, because there is a risk in going down that path that the whole basis of our democracy falls into disrepute, and the actions that we have seen in recent weeks could be picked up by many other people.

As I think many Members of this House will know, I wrote to the Electoral Commission and the UK Statistics Authority asking them to look at the issue, but not only should they look at the issue but the other four parties—that is “parties” with a small “p”—involved also need to look at the issues. One of those parties is us as legislators. Are the legislation and the regulation correct so that they give the Electoral Commission and the UK Statistics Authority the ability to comment on opinion polls in one form or another?

The second group I shall comment on is YouGov, as the pollsters. I think it has learned its lesson from its experience. I think it was—to put it politely—unwise to accept the questions it put out to the public. It was certainly unwise to accept that the questions were being asked and paid for by an organisation which had no apparent structure. It beggars belief that it could be in a position whereby an organisation was created overnight, it had no evidence of who was funding it and it then went ahead with a set of opinion polls in the form that it did. I think YouGov has learned the lesson, but one comment I would make to YouGov at this point is that when the bills are paid, it should hand over the details of the sources of that money to the Electoral Commission for investigation. It does not have to be a public investigation, but it should be fully investigated.

Then we come to the Daily Telegraph, the newspaper that exposed MPs’ expenses. Day after day, it said it was the duty of the paper to identify what the public did not have sight of. If that was the case in 2008-09, one might ask why it is not the same responsibility in 2024 to identify what goes on in private in one form or another.

The British Polling Council has a difficult job— I used to serve as the head of a trade association; you set the rules for members, but there may be recalcitrant members who cannot or choose not to follow the rules—but I think the British Polling Council should look carefully at what has happened in recent weeks. I have already indicated the UK Statistics Authority.

The Telegraph has used and abused figures in such a way that YouGov felt required to put the longest qualification I have ever witnessed of any single opinion poll on its website. It used phrases like “red herring” and “It’s not true” when correcting what the Daily Telegraph had done. That is why the UK Statistics Authority should have a role in monitoring this. I do not expect it to go into every single complaint, because if it did it would be dealing ad infinitum with our disagreements across the different political parties.

I believe the Electoral Commission has a role in such circumstances. Issues have been raised by this poll. The anonymity which has been held to by we-do-not-know-who is something that I find difficult to accept, because if they can do it, every political party can do it and everybody else in the country can do it. There is a risk that if we go down that path, our strong and healthy democracy which we have had for many years will fall into disrepute and be unacceptable.

In the past two hours, I have had a reply from John Pullinger, which I have copied to the Labour and Liberal Democrat Front Benches. It raises questions and discusses issues. There are implications for legislators —there is no question—and I think it will be worth while for the political parties, the Parliamentary Parties Panels or whatever to go into discussion with the Electoral Commission to see what the best way is to protect our democracy, which I fear for if we do not resolve this particular problem.

When I made my speech in relation to the clause with Lord Judge and others, I referred to the fear that I had that the clause could be used by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which is dominated by people from ZANU-PF, and that it could say “This is what you do in Britain”. That was the risk. I identified to the House that I had been an electoral observer for the Commonwealth, but what I did not identify at that point was that on the night of the election we, as observers, were approached in a dilapidated school in the dark by a group of people who told us that one of the opposition workers had been arrested and taken into jail for the mere objection to certain people casting their vote because they did not believe they were correctly registered. The next day, I intervened on that case. I had to speak to the arresting officer over the phone because the person concerned was in jail 40 miles away and was due to appear in court within the hour. I spoke to the accused, and fortunately that person was released immediately, but that is what I was concerned about. Joseph Bonda had the courage to stand up and say, “This is antidemocratic”. The next day, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, intervened when Mnangagwa’s police came into the grounds of the hotel in Harare where we were centred in an effort to stop a press conference by the leader of the opposition. The noble Baroness led the confrontation. I do not want to make it sound like Rorke’s Drift because it was not, but it took a lot of courage. Both those people were showing what defending democracy was like and should be for us. We should not take anything for granted. That is what we should protect in a healthy democracy.

That is the reason I ask why we have accepted the position, and why the Telegraph, YouGov and the funders of an anonymous opinion poll seem to think it is correct to undermine our healthy democracy. They are letting down the likes of Joseph Bonda and the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. I asked the question earlier, “Who are these people? Why aren’t they like Spartacus standing up and saying, ‘I am funding this anonymous poll’? It is because they lack the courage to do so. It is a case of fat wallets and no honour. They are clearly not democrats. As far as I am concerned, I hope the Telegraph and YouGov will mend their ways. They can do, and I believe the latter will do.

This statement and the ability to intervene through an Electoral Commission will undermine our democracy; certain people have shown that you can do so very effectively. Our whole democracy is at risk if people do not come forth and be honest with the nation, because other people will go down the same route in the run-up to the next election.