Wallace: Undermining the roots of our democracy

If you’ve read Sally Hamwee’s account last week of the way that the government pushed the Nationality and Borders Bill through both Houses of Parliament, and of the failure of the Labour Party in the Lords to stand up against some of its most illiberal elements, you won’t be surprised to hear that the same happened at the end of the parliamentary session to the Elections Bill – rightly condemned by Alastair Carmichael in an article for the Times as ‘undermining the roots of our democracy.’

The Bill arrived in the Lords with a report from the Commons Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, drafted after it had been through the Commons, which declared the Bill ‘unfit for purpose’. Ministers simply ignored the committee’s criticisms. They similarly ignored the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on Political Finance, published last summer, and the earlier warnings of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia Report that the Electoral Commission needed stronger powers to prevent foreign funding and influence corrupting UK campaigns.

The Bill – now an Act – weakens the powers of the Electoral Commission, gives the government the right to tell it which priorities to follow, introduces photographic identity requirements for domestic voters but easier registration and lifetime voting rights for overseas citizens, and does nothing to tighten controls over political finance. Indeed, the absence of any information from the government as to how it will manage the expansion of the number of eligible overseas votes suggests that the main purpose of this significant expansion of the franchise is to make it legal for wealthy expatriates living long-term in Monaco or other tax havens to donate to the Conservative Party.

This Act is both constitutionally and electorally significant. Legal changes relating to the regulation of party political campaigning ought in a democracy to be the subject of consultation – and some effort at consensus – among different political parties, not pushed through by a government which won 43% of the vote in the last election. Electorally, it tilts the ‘playing field’ further in favour of the Conservatives, who already benefit from the incompleteness of the electoral register – estimated at 8-9m missing citizens – which the Act has ignored. Chris Rennard estimates that the introduction of compulsory voter ID may be worth 10-15 additional seats for the Tories, as poorer voters face greater obstacles in polling stations. As we argued throughout the Bill’s progress, there is no evidence that impersonation is a serious problem in British elections; the Conservative push for voter ID, like other aspects of its right-wing slide, is lifted from the voter-suppression efforts of US Republicans.

Why didn’t Labour oppose the Bill more strongly? On the final day it was before the Lords, more Liberal Democrat peers voted on key amendments than Labour, despite the far larger size of the Labour group. Part of the political and constitutional crisis the UK faces is that the Labour Party remains divided about its priorities, and its attitude to reform of a political system that at least keeps it in place as the main opposition to the Conservatives, with occasional chances to take power – protected from the challenges that have shrunk socialist parties in other European countries. And Labour is unsure whether it wants to appeal more to the young and educated or to the older traditional working class – and is doubtful if it can hold the support of both.

Whatever happens at the next election, constitutional reform will have to be back on the agenda. The Institute of Government’s Hannah White has just published Held in Contempt: what’s wrong with the House of Commons, bleakly setting out the government’s efforts to side-line Parliament and avoid scrutiny. This will need to be a cross-party effort, in contrast to the Tories’ partisan populism, for which we will have to argue in the new session, which starts on May 10.

* William Wallace has fought five parliamentary elections in Manchester and West Yorkshire. He is a former president of the Yorkshire regional Liberal Democrats.

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14 Comments

  • Barry Lofty 8th May '22 - 10:40am

    It is indeed a rather frightening scenario that Lord Wallace portrays for the future while the present government is in power but given the statement by Lord Hayward regarding his party’s dire results in the recent elections, that people had become distrustful of real politicians and therefore had voted for lesser mortals from other party’s instead, just shows the arrogance and self serving contempt that the present administration has for the electorate of the UK!

  • David Garlick 9th May '22 - 12:29pm

    Is a bus pass allowed? Need to find and encourage simple ID solutions.

  • @David Garlick, bus passes are part of the problem. Old people are more likely to vote Conservative. As in the US, these measures are designed to make it easier for right wing people to vote, and harder for those on the left.

  • Barry Lofty 9th May '22 - 3:47pm

    Andy Daer: “ bus passes are part of the problem. Old people are more likely to vote Conservative. I am old, don’t have a bus pass and have never voted Tory, I am tired of older people being tarred with the same brush, there are many other categories of the voting public who are blinkered right wing people! Having said that anyone being disenfranchised from casting their vote for whatever reason is anti democratic.

  • Malcolm Todd 9th May '22 - 4:00pm

    Barry Lofty
    You’re missing the point. Of course, not everybody over 65 votes Tory! And there are still plenty of under-25s who do vote for them.
    The point is that the older the demographic, the *more likely* it is they will vote Tory. So if, by way of extremes, you *only* allowed over-65s to vote, the Tories would be in power perpetually, and if you *only* those aged 18-30 to vote, they’d never be elected. Therefore, making it easier for the old to vote than for the younger makes it easier for the Tories to win.
    That’s the point. It’s no good feeling all insulted about it. I’m a 55-year-old middle-class white man. If only people who matched my demographic were able to vote, I’m under no illusion what the result would be!

  • Barry Lofty 9th May '22 - 4:45pm

    Malcolm Todd: I know exactly what and why this government is doing this but still have a sense of annoyance with the statement made about ” old people ” The identity card policy is wrong whatever age you are.

  • Robin Bennett 9th May '22 - 6:01pm

    A rule that there is no representation without taxation (according to means) has as much validity as the generally agreed principle of “no taxation without representation”. Many expats who retain property or investments in the UK on which they will pay UK taxes, but then so do citizens of other countries investing here. Why should they have a vote when they may have left the UK to avoid paying UK taxes? Even if they are abroad to take advantage of job opportunities, they have the assurance that they can vote when they return to the UK.

    There is a fear of Identity Cards which cannot be justified in a country which is far from being an authoritarian state. Their absence mean a loss of convenience in some of the transactions of daily life. They have also been highly valued by other ethnicities when their rights are challenged by xenophobic Brits. Identity cards would make the legitimate work of the police and, if recorded at the border, immigration authorities easier. They could be programmed to replace bus passes. While there is no significant voting fraud in the UK, the law could allow people (particularly the young) who are regularly on the move to vote in a constituency of their choice, regardless of their current address, simply by producing an identity card instead of having to re-register after each move. The category of “missing citizens” would no longer exist.

  • The bigger point is that our democracy expects the governing party to try to extend it’s time in power with policies that appeal to the electorate, but changing the rules in its favour is wrong.
    Voter fraud is extremely rare, and is not a problem that needs to be solved. The changes in the bill, requiring proof of identity, political control of the electoral commission, and allowing rich expats to fund political parties, are all designed to favour the Conservative Party.
    In recent times Liberal Democrats have realised that early canvassing of postal voters can be crucial, but we will now need to focus more on younger voters (not a bad thing in itself), and make sure they do vote, and that they equip themselves with acceptable ID before the election is announced.

  • Peter Hirst 10th May '22 - 4:18pm

    With Labour showing few signs of leading, it is up to us and the other smaller Parties to push progressive policies. At some stage the electorate will become fed up with it though only if there is a credible alternative. By using all the votes available effectively, this third grouping could prove decisive in the coming GE.

  • >Whatever happens at the next election, constitutional reform will have to be back on the agenda
    Fingers crossed the LibDems have more to say about this than to pontificate on voting reform…
    Remember the Conservatives got this Bill through Westminster and on to the Statute book by following the well established rules and conventions of Westminster; voting reform does zero about these established abuses of democracy…

  • You have to provide ID to buy a tube of glue, if it will help to reduce electoral fraud and the perception of electoral fraud, it has to be a good idea.

  • Michael Berridge 11th May '22 - 8:52am

    I was going to post a comment as a member of the Liberal Democrats but can find no way to identify myself as one, now that the Lib Dem Forum has closed. So I too have an “identity” problem.

  • Ambighter 11th May ’22 – 7:53am………….You have to provide ID to buy a tube of glue, if it will help to reduce electoral fraud and the perception of electoral fraud, it has to be a good idea………

    No you don’t; unless you look under 18.. It’s just an ‘Age Restricted Product’ and, If you ARE under 18, you can’t buy it (along with alcohol, tobacco, knives, etc.)
    Electoral fraud is already so low that this is just ‘a solution chasing a problem’ (at the expense of Universal Suffrage)..

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