openDemocracyUK: Opinion

If Tory MPs want to protect freedom, why are they supporting the Elections Bill?

Let’s not suffer from selective liberalism. Civil liberties are for life, not just for Christmas rebellions

Sam Power
16 December 2021, 10.54am
Tory MP Marcus Fysh this week apologised for comparing COVID restrictions to Nazi Germany
PjrNews / Alamy Stock Photo

Boris Johnson suffered a massive rebellion on Tuesday, with around 100 of his own Conservative MPs voting against new measures to tackle COVID.

With support from the opposition parties, the measures still passed. Adults in England will now need a vaccine pass to enter certain venues, or show proof of a negative test. The new rules also introduce compulsory jabs for English NHS workers.

But Tory MPs who voted against the government claimed that this could be the start of creeping authoritarianism. Former minister Tim Loughton said he didn’t want to live in “a society where we ask for papers and deprive people of their liberty”.

Tory MP Marcus Fysh apologised after comparing the measures to Nazi Germany. He had previously said: “We are not a ‘papers please’ society. This is not Nazi Germany. It’s the thin end of an authoritarian wedge.”

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But putting aside the crass comments and some latent confusion around whether these measures are ‘vaccine passports’ (they aren’t), it is warming to see so many Conservative MPs worried about civil liberties and democratic freedom.

However, if their concern is genuine, they should pay closer attention to the priorities of their government.

Democratic backsliding

While MPs were panicking about COVID restrictions this week, a cross-party committee called on the government to pause plans to change the UK’s election law.

The review was particularly damning about two controversial elements of the Elections Bill: the legal requirement for photographic identification to be shown by the public in order to vote (papers, please!) and changes that would undermine the independence of the election watchdog.

At the 2019 election, there were just 33 allegations of impersonation out of 58 million votes cast

The problem with both reforms is that the evidence just doesn’t stack up enough to justify the restrictions on liberty. The report by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) says the government’s research was “simply not good enough” with regards to voter ID.

This is true. At the 2019 general election, there were just 33 allegations of impersonation out of 58 million votes cast. We should be encouraging voting and political participation, not building barriers for the 2% of citizens who have no form of ID (or the 4% whose only form of ID is not recognised under the proposals).

Meanwhile, the changes to the Electoral Commission – the body responsible for regulating elections and political parties – will make it accountable to the very parties it is meant to be policing. The worst-case scenario would see the commission being turned into an arm of the state.

The committee said: “The government has not provided sufficient evidence to justify why the proposed measures are necessary and proportionate.” As I have said before, the plans are akin to giving a toddler a gun. It might not go off instantly, it might even not go off at all, but it certainly isn’t the best idea.

Malign intentions?

As a lecturer in corruption analysis, a general rule of thumb I teach my students is to never assume corruption when incompetence is more plausible. But recent scandals hint at more malign intentions at the heart of these reforms.

The Owen Paterson affair, the Downing Street refurb scandal, and the controversy over Christmas parties have seen Johnson’s government mired in allegations of sleaze and wrongdoing. Consistent at the heart of this is a lack of interest in ethical standards and appropriate behaviour that are a feature of how Johnson likes to run government.

Is it any wonder, then, that he may show an interest in dismantling oversight mechanisms? But his own party seems happy to let these things slide.

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Although I might disagree with the logic, I have a degree of sympathy with those Conservative MPs anxious about COVID passes, the prospect of compulsory vaccinations or further lockdowns. But let’s not suffer from selective liberalism.

But there is no ideological coherence if, at the same time as rebelling against these measures, the same MPs happily wave through the Elections Bill. Yet not a single Conservative voted against it in its first or second reading in the Commons.

The rebels might also wish to closely scrutinise the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (which had no Conservative rebels at the third reading). Or, perhaps, the recently announced ‘common-sense’ reforms to the Human Rights Act.

If these reforms are somehow acceptable, but measures to stem the spread of the Omicron variant aren’t, then it seems all the more likely that any talk of ‘creeping authoritarianism’ is simply empty rhetoric. After all, civil liberties are for life, not just for Christmas rebellions.

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