Fight the elections bill: we can’t let the Tories downgrade our democracy

Cat Smith
© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

The past few months have laid bare the disdain that the government has for its own voters. First, Boris Johnson tried to change the rules to shield Owen Paterson from accountability. Then it was revealed that, as families up and down the country cancelled Christmas plans and locked down, Downing Street was a non-stop Christmas party throughout December 2020.

Now, even as the Conservatives lose the confidence of the country, the government is using the elections bill to make sure that they can avoid the consequences of their actions. For one, they are extending the first-past-the-post voting system to elections for mayors and police and crime commissioners, citing false claims that voters find the existing system, which allows voters a first and second preference, confusing.

This move will ensure that candidates can be elected to administer huge areas like London or Greater Manchester with as little as a quarter of the vote. That it comes after Labour’s candidate Nik Johnson unseated the Conservative mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough last May because of the current supplementary vote system’s second preferences seems hardly a coincidence.

The rest of the bill is even worse. After the Electoral Commission fined the Conservative party for failing to accurately report donations, the government is now planning to strip the Commission of its independence – effectively allowing the political party in government to mark its own homework.

It will introduce mandatory photo ID for voters, which will exclude millions from our democracy, disproportionately young and those with disabilities. All of this upheaval is due to one single conviction of voter impersonation at the 2019 general election. Hardly a proportionate response, given you are more likely to be struck by lightning three times than have your vote stolen in this way.

And new spending rules will make it easier for foreign donors to pump money into our elections, even as it becomes harder for trades unions and charities here in the UK to have their voices heard.

What’s more, this bill has been rushed through parliament without proper debate. First, the extension of first-past-the-post was shoehorned in with an obscure constitutional mechanism, preventing MPs from properly scrutinising it. Last time a change in the voting system was proposed it went to national referendum.

Then the minister in charge of the bill was reshuffled and a new minister thrown in the deep end, struggling to explain very much about the bill and confessing to having not read important documents like the Russia report, which contain important warnings about defending our democracy. Now news is coming out that the government may use the bill to crack down on those who damage public memorials.

Whatever you think of these changes, this is hardly the way to handle a bill that seeks to alter our democracy in such fundamental ways. At the very least, pre-legislative scrutiny should have taken place, at best public consultation through citizens’ assemblies.

If passed, this legislation will reverse decades of democratic progress in the UK. Meanwhile, it will be the Conservatives who benefit from reduced turnout, more first-past-the-post, and an Electoral Commission at their beck and call. The irony is, this has all been done in the guise of restoring integrity to our democracy. But the truth is that our democracy does not have an issue with integrity; it is the Conservative government that has the issue with integrity.

What this bill needs is a pause, and proper scrutiny. The country is sick of elections as they are – the government has diagnosed that correctly. But, as ever, they have prescribed the wrong solution. Polling has consistently shown that most people want to change the voting system. The British public tell pollsters that they want their vote to really count, and to end first-past-the-post for good.

And, increasingly, the Conservatives are finding themselves ever more isolated in their support for our arcane elections – so arcane, in fact, that our last surviving first-past-the-post bedfellow in Europe is Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus. The Scottish government is keeping local and Scottish Parliament elections using proportional representation, which Labour introduced. Meanwhile, Welsh Labour is leading the way in making seats match votes at the local level.

The government knows that if the British people were asked about how they wanted their elections to be carried out, they would not endorse the package that Boris Johnson is busy forcing upon them right now. This is why Conservative MPs voted down a proposal supported by MPs from across the political spectrum to call a citizens’ assembly and ask the British people how they wanted to elect their representatives.

Once again, the Conservatives will do everything they can to escape true accountability. But we will be heard. Earlier this month, Labour colleagues were joined at a cross-party rally outside parliament calling for real democracy and to make votes matter. Now, with members of the House of Lords due to discuss the bill during the second reading tomorrow, 23rd February, I encourage everyone to write to members of both chambers and to tell them that we do not want a rigged system.

Without a mass movement calling for true democracy, the Conservatives can pretend that the people do not really care about this, the elections bill will pass, and the government will escape true accountability. Now is the time to call for an end to the cronyism and corruption, to call for a government that is accountable to its voters, and to demand a system that works for everyone.

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