Thursday, 24 February 2011

Conflict of interest for the Electoral Reform Society?

It has come to light that the main funder of the "Yes" campaign, the Electoral Reform Society, is also the main stakeholder in a company, the Electoral Reform Services Limited (ERSL).

The Spectator, a heavily Tory friendly magazine that has featured articles from the head of the No2AV campaign Matthew Elliott, claims that this is proof of a conflict of interest. I have to disagree.

Take a look at this quote, perfectly formed from Wikipedia: "A conflict of interest can only exist if a person or testimony is entrusted with some impartiality;"

So for a start it is pretty much impossible for the ERS to be in conflict of interest here. They're political, and they're wanting reform. There is no impartiality assumed upon their being (especially as members are actually key parts of the Yes campaign), and no impartiality is required to be a donor of the Yes campaign.

But even ignoring this I believe there are three different ways it can be described that it is not a conflict of interest for the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) to be donating to the Yes campaign any more than it is for the Tories (who today donated £500k to the No campaign) to donate to the No campaign.

1) The ERS is not the ERSL.

Sure, the ERS is a stakeholder (the main one in fact) in ERSL, perhaps even controlling in that fact...who knows how the inner machinations work? But it is the political body, the ERS, that is funding the campaign for a Yes vote. The ERS derives dividends from it's stakeholder position whether it supports the Yes campaign or not, what it does with that money to support it's own stated aims is up to the ERS.

Given the ERS is a political organisation rather than a business there is no benefit that they can gain other than to further their own aims. To claim this is a conflict of interest is to accept that ANYONE donating to EITHER campaign is a conflict of interest, as they ultimately want their respective side to win.

It might be a slightly different picture (but still not a conflict of interest) if it was the ERSL that was directly using it's own profits to fund the Yes campaign.

2) There is no immediate benefit to ERSL by the referendum taking place

There is no proof that additional services would be required by the ERSL. There is a claim that the referendum for AV will be administered by ERSL, however I am unable to find any proof of that (I welcome any confirmation either way), but even this involvement is not a conflict of interest. The fact that the ERSL could be administering the referendum doesn't mean that it benefits by ERS contributing to the Yes campaign.

A separate body, I would imagine the Electoral Commission, will be responsible for awarding contracts through their own process, so donations to the Yes campaign are not going to increase their chances of being picked by this separate independent body.

3) There is no guarantee of future benefit to ERSL conferred by the change to an AV voting system

There are two things that the ERSL cannot guarantee. 1) It cannot guarantee that it will be used for general elections in the future, the Electoral Commission no doubt decides this. My understanding is that it currently does not provide services for General Elections (corrections are welcome). 2) It cannot guarantee that if AV were to take place that it would generate a greater profit in the chance that it would be chosen to administer the General Election than if it were still under FPTP.

Essentially, for the ERSL to be in conflict of interest here it would have to be providing funding in such a way that it could improve it's chances of increased commercial use. Given that in the first case their chance remains the same for gaining any contracts regardless of whether their dividend money is going to the Yes campaign or not, and that the second chance is a decision that would need to be made by the same independent body without ERSL involvement on using different and more expensive administration methods, there is no reasonable claim to be made here that the ERSL are in a conflict of interest situation.

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If we are to get ourselves in to a mock frenzy over this issue then we would have to severely look at all funding models for political campaigns in the future. Is it appropriate that the Tories, who will perhaps see that their chances of a not-to-distant majority in the House of Commons relies on the retention of the First Past the Post system should donate to the No campaign to help them secure that? Should individual donors be able to contribute to either side when they stand to be rewarded, based on their local area, with a result that is more likely to be in their favour?

It is not a conflict of interest for people to fund campaigns in to what they believe in, and it's certainly not a conflict of interest for money to be used that has been derived from an organisation in the same "field" or forum whereby decisions are being made. And even if it were the ERSL funding rather than the ERS (if we perhaps combine them as a single unit), the ERSL cannot guarantee by any of it's actions that by increasing the chances of a Yes victory through it's funding that it will benefit in any way from that choice.

A storm in a teacup, and so if you're reading this congratulations as I'm not going to be giving this link out, as I don't wish to give extra fuel to the flames of such a ridiculous argument.