How much do you value democracy? Seems an odd question to ask, doesn’t it? So ingrained is the idea that we live in a parliamentary democracy that, rather like the NHS, it will not be until it is gone that people will realise just how much they valued it.
I don’t want to be alarmist but the very fabric of our right to call ourselves a democracy is under a sustained attack, no less far reaching than that of the NHS. The government, with virtually no tangible opposition at all, are pushing through Parliament measures that will take away your rights and the national media, as myopically Tory as ever, have all but turned a blind eye.
The Election Bill currently being pushed through the House of Commons by multimillionaire Home Secretary Priti Patel, is the latest “undercover of darkness” assault on your democratic “rights”. And, were you to stand at a bus stop or at a pub bar, my guess is that the vast majority of people would not have a clue what was happening. And, in most cases would care even less. Whilst the popular media distract us with the Euros, Wimbledon, and demands for lockdown easing, the Home Office has been busy ensuring that Britain is sleepwalking into a one-party Tory state.
In future it will be easier to vote if you have chosen to leave this country than it will be if you actually live here. This is not just about voter ID, but a significant, and ultimately corrupt, change to our democratic systems. It is a deliberate attempt to make elections less fair and less representative. For all those that have wanted PR you are getting it. From now on elections will go to the party with the highest number of Tories in it, which of course does not rule out Labour entirely!
It may surprise you to know how many people who don’t reside in the UK voted in December 2019. It was a record breaking 233,000 according to the House of Commons Research Library. It’s worth remembering that the Tories only gained an additional 200,000 votes in that election but they put one hell of an effort into encouraging overseas voters and postal votes, many of which seemed by a strange coincidence to go their way. Let’s not open up the whole debate about whether the Tories cheated their way to an election victory, after all it was not only the Tory Party that had no intention of allowing Jeremy Corbyn to be Prime Minister, but the point is that if elections are not fair then the whole point of them is undermined.
Defend The Electoral Commission
I am not a big fan of electoral politics for reasons I have outlined elsewhere. But, given the absence of other effective means to make the voices of ordinary people heard they remain something worth defending. The Elections Bill not only makes it harder for people to vote in elections but makes a substantial change to the way in which elections are actually run.
At first sight a change to the Electoral Commission which oversees elections would appear to be just a minor administrative change. The Commission which is nominally independent of parliament is to be brought under a ‘Strategy and Policy Statement’ approved by parliament containing guidance they must follow. It also moves to prevent the Commission from bringing criminal prosecutions. By bringing the Electoral Commission under the remit of the Speakers Committee, which takes away the independence the Commission has previously enjoyed. The Speakers Committee is one of those little known, and even less cared about, parliamentary committees which has enormous power and wields it remorselessly. The committee is made up of 9 MPs, five of whom are currently Conservative.
In April this year the Commission announced that it had launched an investigation into the funding of the £200,000 Johnson and his latest wife spent on “doing up” the Downing Street flat. In September 2020 the Commission told Open Democracy that they were concerned about donations to the Tory Party from Russian donors including Lubov Chernuhim, the wife of a Russian finance minister. She has given around £1.7 million to the Conservatives over 8 years. In 2017 the Commission fined the Conservative Party £70,000 after it was found to have underreported election expenses in 2015. Now, you might think it is putting two and two together, but the Tories have been playing fast and loose with election rules for a number of years. Now, they intend to effectively neuter the only organisation that has the statutory duty to hold them to account.
Whilst the mass media are not entirely up in arms about the assault on your rights, they have covered it. The BBC, for example, had a page on their website (on July 5th) with a headline ‘New election bill to “protect democracy”, says government’. Despite the inverted commas it is noticeable that the piece by Lucy Webster seems to have been substantially written by Conservative Central Office and is most concerned about voter ID quoting Labour’s Cat Smith as saying “Voter ID is a total waste of taxpayers' money, set to cost millions of pounds at every election.Voting is safe and secure in Britain. Ministers should be promoting confidence in our elections instead of spreading baseless scare stories which threaten our democracy. First it was using the cover of the pandemic to hand out taxpayers' money to their mates, now it's using the cover of the pandemic to threaten British democracy. These plans must be stopped.” As if Labour would say anything different. In truth the fact that they say anything these days should be headline news. The plans to neuter the Election Commission are hidden at the bottom of the piece and simply note that the Commission said the bill: "represents a strong commitment from the UK government to modernising our electoral system and addressing areas that need improvement.” And, that represents the entirety of the BBC’s coverage to date. The only newspaper that I could find with anything like coverage of this bill was The Observer on 4th July which covered exactly the same ground as the BBC and concentrated entirely on voter ID without even mentioning the fact that the only statutory body currently able to prevent fraud will, in future, be unable to do anything other than what the Government want it to. Well done, the Guardian, that bastion of liberal thought!
It was left to the Constitution Society to point out that “the most concerning are steps which appear designed to limit the independence of the Electoral Commission”, which whilst welcome are hardly likely to rattle the Home Office. The left have been no more vocal. Neither The Socialist (paper of the Socialist Party) nor the Socialist Worker had anything to say on the Bill, whilst the Morning Star did no more than The Guardian repeating a Labour Party press release. If the left media in this country really cannot see that this bill represents a nail in the coffin of British democracy then we really are in trouble.
What is to be done? Clearly, voter ID is an unnecessary and costly way to fix a problem that does not actually exist, but that is not the main thrust of the bill. As always it is necessary to read the small print. By encouraging people who don’t even live in this country to vote the Tories hope to ensure a permanent Toryocracy. At the last election the numbers of overseas voters, those who so love the UK that they decided to leave it, was just short of a quarter of a million. But, this was after a campaign to encourage them to register because in 1985 the number had been around 11,000. It is expected that the numbers could now reach 4.4 million.
It is worth bearing in mind that in 2005 the last time Labour won, they only had 767,000 more votes than the Tories, in 1997, they won by 3.9 million votes. But the fact is that the constituencies where these votes will be counted will not be spread evenly. The Tories would not be committing £2.5 million of taxpayers money to making sure that these people can vote if they did not benefit them in some of their marginal seats. There is little actual hard data on how overseas voters cast their votes, but you do not have to be abroad long to find a Union Jack bedecked ex-pat bar where pictures of the Queen vie for wall space with Churchill, and where locals who haven’t set foot on Blighty for years will happily regale you with stories about how England (its invariably England, not Scotland or Wales) has gone to the dogs and that most of this is due to the influx of foreigners. If they have a sense of irony it bypasses them as they go full Nigel Farage on you. Okay, you might say that is a stereotype and I have only ever been to a handful of countries outside the UK so it is certainly not scientific, but my point is this: I don’t want the future of the country I live and work in and in which I pay my taxes to be decided by people who have abandoned us, often through their own prejudice and are living in some mythical past where they are part of an Empire which bestrides the World.
Democracy, as flawed as it is, remains worth defending. For a beleaguered left, with an NHS to defend, the right to protest under attack, a Unite leader to elect, anti-racists to root out, and, still inexplicably, a Labour Party to try to get elected in next years local elections, fighting to defend the very democracy that they depend on for their lifeblood may seem abstract. Stopping people from voting or defending the Electoral Commission may not seem an ideal campaign focus but as the very idea of democracy comes under sustained attack around the World (similar moves are afoot in the USA for example) the road to socialism requires us defending and extending our right to vote in fair elections in which our ideas and our side have a fair chance of being heard. That has not been the case for a number of years, and if the Tories are allowed to pass this Election Bill with only the rump of Labour to oppose it then we are on a slippery path indeed.