Will the PM eat his ID card?

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In today’s Guardian Marina Hyde has unearthed this quote from Boris Johnson in 2004:

If I am ever asked on the streets of London, or in any other venue, public or private, to produce my ID card as evidence that I am who I say I am, when I have done nothing wrong and am simply ambling along and breathing God’s fresh air like any other freeborn Englishman, then I will take that card out of my wallet and physically eat it in the presence of whatever emanation of the state has demanded I produce it.

I am reminded of Paddy Ashdown promising to eat his hat in 2015 when the polls were predicting large Lib Dem losses. And of Lib Dem Voice’s former editor, Stephen Tall, who pledged to run down Whitehall naked if we halved our number of MPs in the same election. Stephen, bless him, honoured his commitment, and did the run in full view of TV cameras on a cold Autumn day, although he was permitted a thong. Even Paddy submitted to good humoured humiliation when he ate a chocolate version of his hat on Question Time.

I somehow doubt that the Prime Minister will honour his pledge. But then the requirement for voters to present photo ID in order to be able to vote in a polling station, as announced in the Queen’s Speech yesterday, has already met with a great deal of public opposition, so its chances of reaching the statute books are, in my view, quite slim. However, we must not make any assumptions about how it will play out, and we must ensure that everything possible is done to prevent it becoming a reality.

The reasons for opposing voter ID have been covered extensively, but it is worth reminding people that it was blatantly used in some US states by Republicans to suppress Democratic votes.

Any extra complexity added to voting processes anywhere in the world potentially discourages some voters from exercising their democratic rights, and may even disenfranchise them.

In simple terms, voter impersonation (“personation” as it is correctly called) is a vanishingly small offence in the UK, as indeed it is in the US.  The Electoral Commission has published reports which show that 1 person was convicted of personation in 2017, none in 2018, 1 in 2019, and none in 2020 (although very few elections took place last year). This is not a problem seeking a solution.

On the other hand, it is a solution creating a problem.

In a research briefing from the House of Commons Library, we learn that the Electoral Commission had found that around 25% of voters do not have either a passport or driving licence – the most popular forms of photo ID used in this country. By extending that to include other forms of ID, such as bus passes, some 92.5% would be covered. But that still leaves 3.5 million voters without any permissible form of ID.

The suggested way round this would be to give voters the option of applying for a free photographic electoral ID card from their local council. The Electoral Commission carried out some pilot projects along those lines and concluded:

  • However, we are not able to draw definitive conclusions, from these pilots, about how an ID requirement would work in practice, particularly at a national poll with higher levels of turnout or in areas with different socio-demographic profiles not fully represented in the pilot scheme.
  • If the policy is to be developed further, Government and Parliament should consider carefully the available evidence about the impact of different approaches on the accessibility and security of polling station voting in Great Britain.

In other words, it is not at all clear the extent to which the proposal would affect disadvantaged groups who would be more likely than others to be without standard forms of photographic ID.

It is estimated that the provision of electoral ID cards nationwide would cost around £2million. We cannot assume that people who are already disadvantaged would find it easy or convenient to apply for them; indeed applications for such cards would present an extra barrier to voting that would not have to faced by more fortunate voters.

Of course, civil liberties arguments come strongly to the fore. The rise of the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers during the pandemic has demonstrated that the harm principle can, in certain circumstances, over-ride the liberty principle – but only where the risk of harm is substantial, as I argued here: Is wearing a mask a civil liberties issue?

The risk of harm from voter personation is almost zero, so there is no justification at all in imposing such a costly and discouraging process. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any motivation for the proposal, apart from a desire to suppress voting by certain demographics.

As Liberals and as Democrats this topic is core to our identity. We must not be too distracted by imminent by-elections to miss this opportunity to defend the very bedrock of modern democracy and liberty – the right to vote.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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17 Comments

  • Little Jackie Paper 12th May '21 - 2:49pm

    ‘But that still leaves 3.5 million voters without any permissible form of ID.’

    I live in one of the areas where this was done as a trial. I did not give a photo ID because I could give the voting card that was put through my door as an alternative. I don’t know if that is part of the proposal now?

    I don’t know, I can’t really get too up in arms about this. It is common practice in EU countries. I’m more suspicious of postal votes than I am about personation. Of course forcing people to wear a muzzle to vote in person doesn’t help.

    Of course Ms Reid I assume that you will also staunchly oppose vaccine ID cards. Or maybe the vaccine ID could also be used as an election in-person ID come to think of it. No jab no vote could then follow to incentivise people. Oh, no sorry – I forgot the regulars on here all promised me that vaccine ID was absolutely not a slippery slope.

  • Peter Chapman 12th May '21 - 2:51pm

    The big issue where I am is still postal votes which are still “harvested ” amongst certain communities

    Not sure this does anything to address this far more prevalent abuse of the secret ballot

    If people are restricted to handing in only one postal vote, has this government never heard of the post? Those who want to win will collect them and then post them (simple)

  • @Little Jackie Paper – I am a bit ambivalent myself about vaccine ID cards, mainly because there is a problem that needs solving here, namely how to organise events that are Covid-safe. The harm principle applies, although we still have to be careful about what methods should be used in order to minimise the restrictions to individual freedom. The problem with all ID cards these days is not the bit of paper, but the database built to serve it.
    As far as voting is concerned there really is no problem to be solved, and the Government is planning to restrict freedoms, at substantial cost, when the risk of harm is virtually zero.
    The proposal would make no sense if all you have to take to the polling station is your polling card, even though that was the fall-back position in the pilot. The requirement will be for photographic ID for everyone.
    @Peter Chapman – yes, there is more evidence of, and more opportunity for, fraud with postal votes than in person votes. That warrants some investigation but again we have to make sure that systems do not discourage people from voting. Postal votes have generally increased participation in elections.

  • Little Jackie Paper 12th May '21 - 3:15pm

    Mary Reid

    Listen to yourself! ‘the Government is planning to restrict freedoms, at substantial cost, when the risk of harm is virtually zero.’

    Followed by the most draconian covid authoritarianism for a vaccinated population.

    You want muzzles, distancing, house arrest, muzzles, tracking devices, coerced medical procedures, muzzles and the rest normalised and permanent don’t you?

    Believe me next to that voter ID pales in my mind. Ambivalent – spare me your born yesterday liberalism.

  • @Little Jackie Paper – yes, life is messy, isn’t it? But there is a major difference between limiting freedoms for extremely marginal gains (re voting) and limiting freedoms in the face of a global pandemic. Please get things in perspective.
    I have been shielding with my husband for the best part of 15 months so I am acutely aware of how my life has been changed. I have not followed the guidance because the law constrains me but because I want to keep my husband safe. I was not coerced into medical treatments, wearing muzzles or house arrest (deliberate emotive terms on your part), and of course I don’t want them normalised. I am very much looking forward to emerging into normal life this summer.

  • John Marriott 12th May '21 - 5:30pm

    No problems with ID cards.Can I have two?

  • Andrew Tampion 13th May '21 - 7:12am

    I don’t like defending Boris Johnson. But it seems clear that in 2004 he was talking about the type of ID card that is common in other countries but has aklways been anathema to Liberals in the UK outside of wartime. Whereas voter ID is simply intended for a specific purpose to prevent personation at elections. Further the proposed new card is only for those who don’t have an existing document like a passport or driving licence. So it’s not the same thing. Is there really a difference between requiring ID at a Polling Station and a motorist being required to produce a Driving Licence after a traffic incident?
    Don’t worry Mr Marriott if the UK introduces an ID card on the model of other EU countries you can have mine.

  • John Bicknell 13th May '21 - 8:58am

    As Robert Smithson points out, on the politicalbetting.com website, the introduction of compulsory photo ID at polling stations would have the effect of increasing the numbers using postal voting, where there is a much greater problem of fraud, compared to the very limited evidence of personation at the polling station itself.

  • George Thomas 13th May '21 - 9:15am

    Regarding postal votes, the article also states:

    “Speaking of the post, there are undoubtedly problems with fraudulent postal voting – and yet the Conservatives are, strangely, not doing anything about that one. Perhaps, like complicating in-person voting, postal voting is one of those things generally judged to “favour the Tories”. (In recent years, incidentally, the main thing that “favours the Tories” is the Labour party.)”

    CNN journalist Luke McGee sets up his piece on this as, “Why is PM going for voter ID? from Queen’s speech one could conclude intention was to suppress minority votes. However gvt briefing shows the accepted docs are broad. So why present as exclusionary? Did the government want a row & to be accused of racism?”

    The phrase “Britain’s Trump” hasn’t been used in a while but we’re again needing to look beyond the noise to see i) Rees Mogg talks about protecting security of elections against potential threat but this lot haven’t taken action regarding postal votes so their stated intention can be doubted; ii) the government has made big noise to state they’re taking anti-liberal action to fire up their base and out the most liberal of pundits so their future views can be dismissed by said base, but really exceptions could suggest this isn’t as aggressive as first seen.

    Or are we back to “dead cats” in that the latest stage of the Greenshill Capital scandal is happening this week and few now are talking about government sleaze?

  • John Marriott 13th May '21 - 10:13am

    @Andrew Tampion
    Thank you so much. You wouldn’t be likely to have any more, would you? On second thoughts, that might be a problem if they were PHOTO ID cards! Technology has clearly moved on. I certainly would not want to carry around a booklet with my information in it. However, something like my current Driver’s Licence would do fine.😀

  • @ Frank Little Interesting to see you quote the right wing Adam Smith Institute on the abolition of ID cards by the Churchill Government in 1952, Frank. I remember it well and queued up for gobstoppers when sweets came off the ration.

    Like so many Tory ploys it promised more than it achieved (the case with many neo-liberal schemes). The Health Minister making the announcement was Harry Crookshank (MP for John Marriott’s beloved Gainsborough).

    Crookshank said, “the former National Registration numbers will now be known as National Health service numbers and arrangements will be made to provide numbers for children and others who have no identity cards. Anyone using the service will be asked, as now, for his number when applying to be put on a doctor’s list or for dental or ophthalmic treatment. “Difficulty may be found,” the Minister’s statement says, “in getting this treatment if the number cannot be given.

    The Ministry of Food has devised a new system of checks against abuses of rationing but prefers not to disclose how it works. There will, no doubt, be equally confidential systems for checking registration for National Service and possibly for keeping track of deserters from the forces. The abolition of civilian cards does not apply to the special merchant seamen’s identity cards issued by the Ministry of Transport, which should be retained”…. The Guardian, 1952.

    Crookshank was no fan of Churchill and took part in a failed plot to replace WSC as Party Leader in 1947. He had an interesting private life which not all Tories were happy with.

  • John Marriott 13th May '21 - 10:54am

    I ought to make it clear that my willingness to carry an ID card has nothing to do with voting. What does concern me is that it has been proposed because of the possibility of massive electoral fraud being perpetrated in future elections. Really? Where have we heard that before and are still hearing it now? Not surely on these islands?

    ‘Britain Trump’ is living up to his name!

  • Will the PM eat his ID card?

    Yes, of course…He’ll do it whilst dying in a ditch in front of a bulldozer at Heathrow.

  • A comparison: in 1972 a fatal railway accident occurred at Eltham when a train driver took a tight curve far too fast, because he was drunk. But the inspecting officer observed: ‘The infrequency of this kind of accident suggests that there has not been a drinking problem: and that there is not one now is, I consider, borne out by [the previous three years’ statistics on the matter]…I am strongly of the opinion that any introduction of breath-tests for train drivers when booking on duty would be unjustified and would be, and would be seen to be, a serious slur on the self-discipline and integrity of a fine body of responsible men.’

  • Citizen ID cards would solve this and a shed load of other citizen based rights and responsibilities; the UK needs to get real and boco e a 21st century democracy

  • I’m another who just can’t get worked up about this, and the most recent polling I saw had Lib Dem voters in favour overall.

    Lots of other countries, not least NI, have similar rules, and we never hear from people actually disenfranchised, which makes me sceptical about these claims of 3.5 million who would be here. Best argument against seems to be that it’s a creep towards full ID cards, but if that’s all you’ve got then it’s slim pickings.

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