Today
Thu 29 July 2021

Kyle Taylor and Nico Docherty of Fair Vote UK evaluate the new reforms to democracy set to be introduced by Boris Johnson’s Government

If you had the ability to fix one thing about British democracy, what would you choose? Would you fix our outdated campaign finance laws? Or regulate the nefarious influence of big tech? Maybe you’d settle for a properly empowered Electoral Commission?

Or maybe you’d decide that the most important thing to do – the thing that British democracy most desperately needs – is to give Brits that have been abroad for more than 15 years the right to vote. That, it appears, is the view of Boris Johnson’s Government.

Two hugely significant pieces of legislation for British democracy have recently been introduced in Parliament. The Online Safety Bill and the Elections Bill have been designed, according to  Minister of State at the Cabinet Office Chloe Smith MP, to “keep the UK’s democracy modern, secure, transparent and fair”. An admirable ambition, but one that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The Elections Bill, introduced on the 5 July, represents at best an unimaginative response to the UK’s many problems and at worst an outright power grab and an assault on democracy.

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There are some welcome reforms. Digital imprints for online political content will introduce some much needed transparency to the wild west of digital campaigning and the aforementioned votes for Brits abroad is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Any extension of the franchise is cause for celebration. A democratic Government should always be in the business of making it easier to vote.

Why then, does the same bill propose the introduction of identification requirements at polling stations? Why is the Government intent on making it easier for non-residents to vote but more difficult for people who live in the UK?

The Government claims that it seeks to address voter fraud – which is practically non-existent in this country, less common than people getting struck by lightning. Multiple similar examples in the US demonstrate that requirements of this kind make it harder for the marginalised to cast their ballots.

The bill also proposes to drastically undermine the independence of the Electoral Commission, the institution tasked with monitoring UK elections and enforcing democratic rules. Under the new arrangement, the Electoral Commission would have its ‘priorities and principles’ approved by Parliament. In effect, the Government of the day will thus be able to set the rules under which an election takes place.

The Online Safety Bill, introduced last May, was framed in similarly lofty language. The legislation has supposedly been designed to tackle the democratically destructive chaos of the online world. Yet, without providing proper provision for the regulation of big tech companies – and particularly the rampant spread of disinformation – it again falls short of the mark.

Indeed, a leading Conservative voice on these issues – Damian Collins MP – recently told the House of Commons that, “the challenge now is to translate the principles of transparency and fairness that we all agree on into the digital world.” Yet his own party continues to ignore his warnings.

This brings us to the publication of a report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) on the regulation of election finance. As Fleur Anderson MP rightly pointed out in Parliament, the Government doesn’t have to look far for the solutions to the problems it professes to care about. The report, based on expert testimony and investigation, outlines 47 recommendations, from tightening permissibility rules for political donations to improving digital spend transparency and auditing. Significantly, the report rightly argues for the Electoral Commission’s monitoring and sanctioning powers to be drastically beefed up.

The CSPL’s findings are not radical or far fetched. They are practical, evidence-based, common sense answers to the simple question: what rules does a healthy democracy need in the digital age?

It is staggering to think that the rules governing our democracy have not been updated since 2000 – a time when Facebook and Twitter did not even exist. It was desperately obvious in 2017 that action needed to be taken, when the Cambridge Analytica scandal exposed gaping flaws in our democratic systems. Now, in 2021, it is a matter of overwhelming urgency.

“For far too long we’ve taken our democracy for granted. We’ve been complacent and our complacency has allowed malign forces to subvert our rules and undermine our institutions,” said Stephen Kinnock, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency.

Johnson’s Government, either wilfully or not, misunderstands the threats facing British democracy – and fails to grasp that they are rapidly becoming issues of national security.

Indeed, the threats do not come from who can vote but rather from who can influence the vote, whether that be unscrupulous social media companies, nefarious foreign forces or unchecked politicians.

The Government has decided to make democracy itself a partisan issue at a time when the principles underpinning a free and fair system should not be up for debate.

Kyle Taylor is the founder and director of Fair Vote UK and author of The Little Black Book of Data and Democracy published by Byline Books. Nico Docherty is its senior researcher and policy officer

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