The elections bill is a brazen attack on our trade unions – it must be stopped

Helen Pearce

MPs on the elections bill committee will be debating proposals by the Tories this week that risk silencing the independent political voice of Labour’s affiliated unions. The elections bill is a veritable smorgasbord of Tory attacks on democracy. They’re making it harder to vote, marking their own homework by giving more power to ministers, and introducing new restrictions that risk silencing the trade unions that have a century-long link to the Labour Party.

The bill introduces a requirement to show photo ID at the polling station, making it harder for many people to vote. Why are they introducing this big change? Since 2014, there have been just three convictions and nine cautions issued after allegations of voter fraud. On the other hand, according to the Cabinet Office, two million voters currently lack the ID they’d need to vote. This isn’t about making our democracy fairer: there isn’t a problem here that needs to be fixed. This is Trump-style voter suppression tactics, which will reduce turnout and make our democracy less representative.

The bill also gives government ministers much too much power. Ministers are getting new rights to direct the work of the Electoral Commission: they’ll be able to ask the Commission to change the guidance on election campaigning to include a wider variety of activities. They may even be able to change the rules retrospectively, as when an election is called it’s all the campaigning that has taken place in the year before it that counts. How can unions, NGOs and civil society organisations take part in public life when they know that, should an election be called, all their campaigning could count towards election spend limits, with rules and guidelines that could be changed by ministers after the fact? This is designed to stop organisations campaigning because they are frightened of falling foul of the law.

The bill goes further and gives ministers the power to remove categories of organisations to the list of those who qualify to register as ‘third party campaigners’. This could allow government to ban organisations it objects to, or those that use campaigning and protest methods it disapproves of. Can it be right that the government gets to pick and choose who is allowed to campaign? It’s not exactly levelling the playing field.

It’s clear that a robust, independent Commission has never been more important. To stretch a metaphor, there can be no level playing field when one side can direct the referee.

Trade unions’ right to campaign independently is under threat. The election bill includes new changes to restrict campaigning by ‘third parties’ like trade unions. The historic constitutional link between affiliated unions and the Labour Party, and the right of unions to an independent voice is under threat – yet again. 

The elections bill curtails the ability of trade unions to campaign in their own right on the issues and priorities that matter to their members, by bringing in new rules on ‘joint campaigning’ with political parties. At the moment, if trade unions run a joint campaign in the run up to an election, then each union must record the total expenditure of the joint campaign against their own individual spending limits. Even though the money has only been spent once, it has to be declared multiple times. 

The bill now extends this rule to joint campaigning between a political party and non-party campaigners. This means that when the Labour Party campaigns with trade unions, the total cost of the campaign could have to be declared by both the party and participating unions. This risks eating up unions’ own campaign limits before they have even begun – especially if the definition of ‘joint campaigning’ is widened by ministers to redefine Labour Party activity as joint activity. Affiliated unions campaign politically on industrial and wider issues, and they campaign against the far right. Together they represent four million working people, and their families – they are entitled to an independent political voice.

These new rules are completely unnecessary: trade union campaigning is the cleanest money in politics. They’re already regulated by the Electoral Commission and the Certification Officer, and unions decided how to campaign democratically. This isn’t about fairness – it’s about silencing the government’s critics.

This elections bill is an assault on the UK’s democratic tradition and a brazen attack on the ability of trade unions to speak out on behalf of the millions of working people they represent. The bill tilts the electoral playing field in the direction of the Conservative party and their wealthy donors. It must be stopped. Join our campaign to stop the elections bill.

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