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The Elections Bill is about undermining democracy, not shoring it up

The Johnson government’s proposed Bill would give vast, untrammelled power to the government of the day

Alina Rocha Menocal
18 April 2022, 12.01am
Protesters take part in a rally against the Elections Bill in Parliament Square, London, February 2022
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The UK government’s Elections Bill has been described as a “nefarious piece of legislation” that is “shabby and illiberal”. Writing for openDemocracy earlier this year, Conservative MP David Davis stated that the government’s claim that this bill will protect our democracy is “nonsense”.

Make no mistake: if the bill becomes law, it will undermine the very essence of our democratic rights, values and practice well beyond Boris Johnson’s premiership.

Three elements of the proposed legislation are particularly problematic. First, the need to show approved photo identification to be able to vote. Second, the rules on campaigning. And finally, parliamentary oversight of the Electoral Commission, the agency that regulates party and election finance and sets elections standards.

The government has justified the introduction of voter identification by saying that it will crack down on voter fraud. But how big a problem is electoral fraud in the UK? Negligible, actually. Between 2015 and 2019, there were only 88 allegations of in-person voter fraud, out of a total of 153 million votes cast. That included votes in three general elections during the four-year period. And the number of convictions is even smaller – a grand total of two convictions and one caution.

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Much more worrying is the likely discriminatory impact of mandatory voter ID. People who are more vulnerable and marginalised – physically, economically, socially and politically – are a lot less likely to have ID. Leading UK civil society organisations warned when the proposed legislation was first announced in the spring of 2021 that the bill would disenfranchise millions, especially among working-class and older people, and Black, Asian and other minority ethnic voters.

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But that might well be the point. Johnson faced the biggest rebellion against his government to date in December 2021, when nearly 100 Conservative MPs voted against plans requiring people to show COVID vaccine certificates to access some large venues in England. Comparing the proposed health passes to “Nazi Germany”, one Tory MP said “We are not a ‘papers please’ society”.

Even so, 85 of those same MPs did not share similar concerns about “liberty” when it came to legislation introducing mandatory voter ID. At least the House of Lords has just passed an amendment expanding the bill’s restrictive list of approved forms of ID to include a number of more widely held non-photo official documents, such as birth certificates, council tax bills and bank statements. The government now needs to decide if it will try to overturn the vote in the House of Commons.

The Elections Bill’s proposed changes on campaigning are intended to silence critics and weaken opposition to the government. The minister for the Cabinet Office will be unilaterally able to define what campaigning is and which groups can or cannot engage in the democratic process by campaigning or donating. The responsibilities of the minister for the Cabinet Office include defending democracy and electoral law. But this bill would effectively give the minister the power to criminalise groups and individuals for actions undertaken up to a year before an election that she or he retroactively deems as ‘campaigning’.

This will have a chilling effect on the right of organised civil society groups, especially smaller ones, to express themselves, raise their voices and take collective action on issues they care about. Former electoral commissioner David Howarth wrote on openDemocracy that the proposed legislation inhibits the ability of smaller parties to form an electoral pact and that it is “a proposal that favours single, monolithic parties over alliances of parties”.

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Lastly, under the claim of increasing parliamentary oversight, the Elections Bill represents a frontal assault on the independence of the Electoral Commission. Howarth has described it as “something straight out of Putin’s playbook”: legislation intended to give politicians increased powers over the body that regulates their activities.

The bill introduces a “Strategy and Policy Statement” for the Electoral Commission, which would give government ministers, rather than Parliament, greater say in the commission’s work. The statement would set out government priorities on electoral matters and principles that the commission would be expected to follow.

The Elections Bill would also allow the minister for the constitution to attend meetings of the Speaker’s Committee, the statutory body responsible for holding the Electoral Commission to account. It expressly removes the potential for the commission to bring criminal prosecutions against those who break electoral law relating to political parties and campaigns. This would stop the Electoral Commission from taking politicians to court over secret donations and illegal campaigning, thereby placing new curbs on the regulator’s independence.

Johnson’s government has consistently disregarded rules and challenged institutional levers

This kind of interference in the workings of an independent watchdog has no precedent in comparable democracies. But such an attack on the integrity of the Electoral Committee is not surprising. After all, Johnson’s government has consistently disregarded rules and challenged institutional levers – rogue MPs, Parliament, the Supreme Court – that are meant to serve as a check on its power.

This bill is part of a more fundamental, systemic effort by the current government to undermine political participation and weaken vital mechanisms of accountability, and it will have a long-lasting impact on our democratic institutions. Should it become law, too much power will be placed in the hands of the government of the day at the expense of ordinary citizens. We cannot let this come to pass.

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