openDemocracyUK: Opinion

We can still force a U-turn on the UK’s anti-democratic Elections Bill

Johnson’s government is rewriting the rules to make sure there can only be one winner – and we can’t let that happen

Martha Spurrier
18 February 2022, 12.01am
The Lords are set to vote on plans that would require people to have ID to vote in UK elections
Andrew Fox / Alamy Stock Photo

Next week, the House of Lords will vote on terrifying legislation that would introduce mandatory ID to vote in elections.

This deeply regressive measure, which has been condemned across the political spectrum, could disenfranchise two million people across the country simply because they do not possess photo ID. The incidence of electoral fraud in the UK is vanishingly small, and voters correctly recognise that our elections are safe from fraud and abuse.

At the same time we know – not least from examples in the US – that voter ID will lock out the most marginalised from our democracy, preventing those most in need of a voice from having their say. It not only tackles a problem that doesn’t exist, but also comes at a huge expense to the taxpayer – an estimated £120m.

Why, then, is our government determined to push this legislation through? This isn’t an isolated case of bad policymaking – but part of a much wider and more sinister project to remove the vital checks and balances on our democracy and prevent the government from being held to account.

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The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently going through Parliament is designed to severely restrict the right to protest – giving the police much greater power to decide which protests can go ahead, where and for how long. Protest is a fundamental right and a vital way for people to stand up against injustice. But it’s clear that this government is determined to shut down that avenue for change.

It doesn’t end there. The government is also trying to make it much more difficult for people to challenge state decisions in court by weakening judicial review, which gives ordinary people the ability to challenge unfair, irrational or unlawful government decisions. The Tories have also announced plans to rip up the Human Rights Act, stripping away vital protections against abuse of power, and putting obstacles in the way of getting justice when the state violates human rights.

Two cross-party parliamentary committees have published reports on the Elections Bill. Both warn about the discriminatory impact that voter ID will have, and criticise how the bill is being pushed through without pre-legislative scrutiny and with key provisions left to unscrutinised secondary legislation. This is consistent with how Johnson’s government likes to create laws – as has been witnessed with lockdown restrictions throughout the pandemic – pushing them through with little or sometimes no debate.

This is a government that is hell-bent on dismantling the mechanisms that allow people to challenge them

It’s clear that this is a government that doesn’t like being held to account, and is hell-bent on dismantling the mechanisms that allow people to challenge them and rewriting the rules so that only it can win. We’ve seen in recent days and weeks just how badly the prime minister takes to being asked to own up to his mistakes.

But this isn’t about parties in Number 10 – it’s about how we as ordinary people can make our voices heard. From the Elections Bill to the Police Bill and the repeal of the Human Rights Act, the crucial tools we have to hold our government to account are being wrestled away from us before our eyes.

But we are not powerless to stop these moves. This is a government characterised by U-turns and famous for caving in to public pressure. Free school meals, exam results and extending the COVID-19 furlough scheme: time and time again, we’ve seen that when the tide of public dissent becomes too much to bear, Johnson and his government have no choice but to back down.

It’s vital that we exert pressure now to defend our vital democratic protections. Otherwise, we risk letting those in power make themselves truly untouchable – and letting our voices be silenced in the process.

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