With local government elections approaching, Labour activists across the country have been out on the doorstep. This May, voters will have the choice between the Labour Party who stands up for communities, or the Conservative Party that has bankrupted local authorities after eight years of spending cuts.
Labour believes democracy is for everyone. We want everyone’s voice to be heard at the local elections, no matter someone’s background. Yet quietly behind the scenes, the Conservatives are trying to make it harder for people to vote. The government is piloting mandatory voter ID in some areas for the local government elections – perhaps one of the most dramatic changes to our voting system ever.
For the first time, voters in Bromley, Gosport, Swindon, Watford and Woking will be required to show identification, such as a driver’s license or passport, to cast their vote. Those without the necessary ID will be turned away. Moreover, before a single pilot has taken place, the Tories have already pledged to roll-out voter ID nationwide at the next general election.
Last week I was out on the doorstep in Bromley talking to voters about the pilots. Despite the election being less than two months away, many voters were completely unaware about the proposed changes. This lack of awareness is deeply concerning.
The stated aim of voter ID is to combat voter fraud. Let’s be clear – electoral fraud is a serious crime and it is vital the police have the resources they need to bring about prosecution. However, these proposals are disproportionate: a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
Last year there were 28 allegations of impersonation – the type of fraud that voter ID is designed to tackle – out of 45 million votes cast. Of these 28 allegations, one case resulted in a conviction. Trust in our democratic system is vital, which is why strategies to tackle fraud should be based on facts.
Decades of international studies show that restrictive ID requirements exclude some parts of the electorate, all whilst doing little to stop determined fraudsters. According to a recent report by Professor Hajnal from the University of California San Diego, strict identification laws caused voter turnout in the US to drop by 5 per cent among individuals from minority groups.
We cannot allow this Conservative government to risk disenfranchising voters. The Electoral Commission has warned that 3.5 million electors – 7.5 per cent of the electorate – do not have photo ID. That is roughly 48,000 eligible voters in Bromley, Gosport, Swindon, Watford and Woking.
There is also a significant financial barrier to obtaining ID. Many people cannot afford a passport, let alone a holiday abroad. A recent study found that 7 million people in the UK have not been on a family holiday in the past ten years. Alongside this fact, the government has pushed through unpopular proposals to increase the cost of adult passports from £72.50 to a whopping £85.
So why are the Government doing this?
Opponents of voter ID have argued that this is the latest Tory ruse to deplete the Labour vote, following a similar trend of voter suppression over many years. After the Conservatives’ rushed decision to introduce individual electoral registration in 2014, 800,000 dropped off the electoral register, many of which were students and young people who tend to vote Labour.
Yet the impact of voter ID goes far beyond traditional Labour voters. For example, older voters, who are more likely to vote Conservative, will be disproportionately affected by these pilots. Data from the 2011 census shows that 70 per cent of people over the age of 65 hold a UK passport. This drops to 46 per cent for people aged 85 and over.
This is clearly not a party political issue – this is about doing the right thing for our democracy. That is why an unprecedented coalition of leading charities, civil society groups and academics wrote to Chloe Smith MP, minister for the constitution, calling on the government to urgently reconsider the decision to enforce voter ID this May.
The coalition – including charities such as Age UK, the National Union of Students, Operation Black Vote, the Salvation Army and Stonewall – argue that voter ID reforms present a significant barrier to democratic engagement; and it could disadvantage young people, older people, disabled, transgender, BAME communities and the homeless.
Labour shares these concerns, which is why we are encouraging our members to stand with us and tell the Tories: don’t create barriers to our democracy.
Cat Smith is shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood.
This piece was commissioned by guest editor Diane Abbott.