The Conservative government has set out to ‘improve’ our democratic institutions in ways that will benefit … well, the Conservative Party. For a decade now it has been clear that the Tory party’s top priority is seizing and holding on to political power. To that end, in a proposed series of anti-democratic measures, the government is looking to tilt the UK electoral system increasingly in its favour, to criminalise peaceful protest and to limit legal scrutiny.
The elections bill: “illiberal”, “pointless” and damaging to trust
This bill proposes to introduce mandatory photo ID for voters in parliamentary elections in an attempt to stamp out voter fraud. But, we may ask, ‘What is the scale of this problem?’ In the 2019 general election there were 33 instances of voter impersonation among the 58 million votes cast – a ‘fraud rate’ of 0.000057 percent. Implementing photo ID is likely to cost £20m per election and cause significant queues at polling stations. However, the main criticism is that 3.5 million voters who do not have access to photo ID (official figures) will be disenfranchised.
The campaign organisation, Liberty, warns of the effect the voter ID requirement could have on marginalised groups. Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns, said:
“If you’re young, if you’re a person of colour, if you’re disabled, trans or you don’t have a fixed address, you’re much less likely to have valid photo ID and could therefore be shut off from voting.”
What we should note is that the voters who are disenfranchised are those least likely to vote Conservative. Even senior Conservatives are opposed to the proposals, with former Brexit secretary David Davis describing the plans as an “illiberal solution in pursuit of a non-existent problem” and urging the government to drop its “pointless proposals”.
The bill also proposes to change the status of the hitherto independent Electoral Commission that oversees elections, increasing government oversight of the work of the Commission and allowing ministers to steer its direction. The Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee (with a Conservative majority and chaired by the Tory William Wragg MP), has been looking at the bill, and, as summarised by historian Robert Saunders, has significant reservations about it and has called for its suspension. Wragg is quoted as saying “We cannot risk any reduction of trust in UK elections”.
Gaming the UK’s electoral system for political advantage
Voter suppression is just one of the ways in which the UK’s electoral system can be gamed and on this one the Conservatives already have form. The electorate for the 2016 EU membership referendum excluded 16 and 17-year-olds, EU residents living in the UK, and long-term UK residents living abroad. These were all categories that were entitled to vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and might in some instances be said to be those with most skin in the game, in that these people would have to live longer with the outcome and/or be most directly impacted by it. They would probably also have been likely to boost the vote to remain.
The UK’s system of ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) is the worst of all electoral systems, as it is the one that maximises the number of wasted votes. Almost every parliamentary seat is contested by three or more parties. As a consequence, the winner may only receive a 40 percent share of the vote or less. Bradford District, for example, consists of five constituencies. Under FPTP, if party A wins all five constituencies with a 40 percent share of the vote, then 60 percent of the votes are wasted, but party A still hoovers up 100 percent of the seats. In 2019, the vagaries of this system were brilliantly exploited by the Conservative Party electoral machine, which gave Boris Johnson an 80-seat majority in the Commons on a 43.5 percent share of the vote.
A step towards a degree of proportionality had been built into elections for police and crime commissioners and for elected mayors, which until now included scope for voters to record a second preference. This gave a certain degree of proportionality. However, in another measure proposed in the election bill, this is now due to be stripped out to give straight FPTP. With this change, as with the others above, no compelling evidence is produced to justify the change and any evidence points in the opposite direction to that being taken by the bill. It is simply a case of change being made for party advantage.
The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill: an “attack on peaceful dissent”
Any self-respecting democracy will enshrine the public’s right to protest. However, the government’s police and crime bill sets out to limit the scope of those rights, including forbidding protests in the vicinity of parliament. If passed, the bill will, among other things, give ‘the authorities’ (Orwellian term) additional powers including the banning of protest marches that might make too much noise!
Recently, addressing a protesting crowd in Parliament Square, the Labour peer Shami Chakrabarti described the bill’s anti-protest provisions as representing “the greatest attack on peaceful dissent in living memory”. On 17 January, the government lost 14 votes (a record!) in the House of Lords on various provisions of the bill. It is a sad reflection of the parlous state of our democracy that it falls to the unelected lords to defend vital elements of our basic rights.
Attack on the Human Rights Act: “knocking the knees out of the rule of law”
Of equal concern is the determination of justice secretary Dominic Raab to overhaul the Human Rights Act (HRA). Raab is keen to introduce a “mechanism” to “correct” legal decisions that he – or anyone in this government – believes to be “incorrect”. This is all of a piece with the government’s attempts to limit the public’s access to judicial review. Human rights lawyer Louise Whitfield comments:
“What has been proposed in recent weeks goes far beyond what anyone who believes in justice and accountability could possibly fear or imagine. It is knocking the knees out of the rule of law.”
It was, for example, thanks to the HRA that the families of the 97 people killed in the Hillsborough disaster, were able to get a proper inquest that revealed the truth.
Louise Whitfield adds: “We all want to be free and able to challenge injustice. The HRA enables just that. It is a law that helps British people stand up to, and be protected from, unlawful state actions.”
The real Conservative manifesto: keep a grip on power, avoid scrutiny, hinder public protest
Taking all the above together what emerges is a picture of a government that is obsessed with preserving its hold on power and at the same time avoiding being held to account. This being held to account consists partly of being open to challenge in free and fair elections and to scrutiny in courts of law. Protest gatherings and marches are another way for the public to express strongly held views. If all these are to be, to an extent, closed down by an authoritarian government changing the law, then we are sadly on the way to becoming a banana republic.