Tue 22 June 2021

Labour MP Stephen Kinnock and Kyle Taylor set out the case for cross-party co-operation to protect the electoral integrity of our political system

At the heart of the latest Queen’s Speech was a suite of bills which the Government claims will strengthen our “electoral integrity”. Together, this package of legislation constitutes the biggest shake-up of how our democracy will work in a generation and its impact will be felt for decades to come. 

But these bills have nothing whatsoever to do with strengthening electoral integrity. Their true purpose is to enable a ruthless executive with an 80-seat majority to dodge accountability, erode the rule of law, and lock millions of people out of our democracy – so that it can consolidate and retain its grip on power at all costs.

There is a bill to amend judicial review, to make it harder to challenge government legislation. A bill to make it harder to protest. And a bill to make it harder to vote by forcing people to show proof of identity at polling stations.

The voter ID bill is perhaps the clearest and most blatant assault on democracy, because the inevitable outcome will be voter suppression. Three and a half million citizens – 7.5% of the electorate – do not have any form of photo ID. With one stroke of its pen, this Government could disenfranchise millions of voters.

The Great Reform Act of 1832 set Britain on the path to becoming a modern democracy, and every piece of electoral legislation since then has sought to broaden the remit of who can vote. Boris Johnson is the first Prime Minister since 1832 who is seeking to reduce the franchise, and for that alone he should hang his head in shame.

The Government is basing its case for voter ID on a fabrication as there is no evidence that voter impersonation is an issue in the UK. Fifty-nine million people voted in the 2019 General Election, but there was only one conviction for impersonation. A person is more likely to get struck by lightning three times.

In 2019, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency, working in partnership with Fair Vote, conducted an inquiry that led to a report which made 20 recommendations to strengthen the integrity of the UK’s electoral system and processes.

It took oral evidence from a dozen witnesses and more than 70 written submissions – and not a single person or organisation mentioned voter impersonation as a threat or risk. In other words, not one of the country’s leading experts in this field raised a single concern about this issue.

The IT and physical infrastructure that is required to make Voter ID work would be an expensive waste of taxpayers’ money at the very time when every penny should be being invested in the post-pandemic recovery and every hard-pressed local authorities should be focused on delivering for their communities.

The Government’s other suffrage-related proposal is to allow Brits living overseas to vote in perpetuity, no matter how long they have lived away. Why does Boris Johnson’s administration want to make it easier for people who may have lived abroad for 50 years to vote, whilst making it more difficult for people who live in this country right now to do so – just because they don’t have a driving licence?

Voting is a legal right, closely linked to others such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. The Government’s approach will have a chilling effect on our elections and, by extension, on our other hard-won democratic rights. It is potentially the thin end of the wedge and profoundly troubling for all those who believe in the checks and balances that are the lifeblood of pluralism and a healthy political culture. 

Another piece of legislation which falls short when it comes to defending our democracy is the Online Safety Bill. Disinformation and conspiracy theories are the virus that spreads through social media, fuelling hate speech, inciting violence and creating fertile ground for incidents such as the storming of the Capitol on 6 January. And yet, this bill makes no attempt to limit access to disinformation.

Instead, the Government has attempted to frame tech regulation as a free speech issue, which is misleading and inaccurate. Nobody is arguing against the right to free speech, but to suggest that this right should extend to being able to use a privately-owned social media company’s platform to send messages to millions of people without due regard to the societal harm that may be caused by those messages is indefensible.

Today, the choice for parliamentarians is clear: are we going to allow the Government to steamroller legislation through Parliament that will fundamentally undermine the foundations of our democracy and entrench the powers of an over-mighty executive; or are the democrats amongst us going to take a stand?

Because this is bigger than partisan party politics and only cross-party co-operation can stop these deeply regressive and damaging steps to undermine democracy in their tracks. As US President Joe Biden said in February: “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.”

Stephen Kinnock chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency. Kyle Taylor is project director at Fair Vote

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