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The Conservatives are Fundamentally Rewriting Britain’s Electoral Rules – Why Is this Not Headline News?

Josiah Mortimer reports on how the Elections Law will impact low-income and minority voters, neuter the elections watchdog, and change the voting system for mayoral elections

Prime Minister Boris Johnson votes in the 2019 General Election. Photo: Dylan Martinez/Reuters/Alamy

The Conservatives are Fundamentally Rewriting Britain’s Electoral Rules Why Isn’t It Headline News?

Josiah Mortimer reports on how the Elections Law will impact low-income and minority voters, neuter the elections watchdog, and change the voting system for mayoral elections

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It will change the face of British elections forever – but it received barely a scrap of media coverage.

Last week, MPs passed the Government’s Elections Bill, meaning that local elections on 5 May will be the last time that voters in England will not need to show ID at polling stations. Britain’s tradition of openness and trust in the electorate at the ballot box has been ended by the Conservative Party. 

The bill’s origins can be traced back to a 2016 paper by the former Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, which was commissioned following the 2015 Tower Hamlets election court judgement – one which saw the disqualification of the area’s mayor for a number of illegal practices. It was a fairly shocking case, but one that was handled by the legal system.

In its wake, Pickles called on voters to submit electoral fraud allegations to him – almost none of which could be verified. But those straw-poll submissions were used to justify 50 recommendations – including the introduction of mandatory voter ID.

This move is one which the Conservative activist base has long been demanding – it is red meat for the blue heartlands; a dog whistle that the rest of us didn’t hear. However, we haven’t yet scratched the surface of the possible scale of its impact. 

A Fundamental Shift

Around two million people do not own the ‘right’ form of ID under the new law, according to ministers’ own figures. Meanwhile, the Cabinet Office itself reported that the policy will cost the taxpayer between £65 million and £180 million over the next decade – with a “central estimate” of £120 million.

The targeted impact of the bill has been much discussed: low-income voters and some black, Asian and ethnic minority communities are among those hardest hit.

Oyster 60+ cards, Older Person’s Bus Passes and Senior/60+ Smart Passes will be accepted as ID, but not young persons’ railcards. 

“I really don’t think the implications of this law have sunk in even among those who are active in political debate,” one former poll worker told Byline Times. “It will require a massive step-change in how we think about election campaigning.”

The UK is fairly unique among European countries in both lacking a universal form of ID for its population, and requiring voters to register in order to vote. From now on, party activists will have to devote huge efforts to not only ensuring that people are registered to vote, but helping them to obtain the correct form of ID too. The opportunity cost – both financially and in the energy that should instead be spent on talking about policies instead – will be immeasurable. 

The policy represents somewhat of a U-turn for Boris Johnson. In his Telegraph heyday, the now Prime Minister wrote of ID cards: “I loathe the idea on principle. I never want to be commanded, by any emanation of the British state, to produce evidence of my identity… I will take that card out of my wallet and physically eat it.”

As the Elections Bill was passed – one requiring photo ID such as a passport or driving licence in order to vote – Johnson lambasted huge delays at the DVLA and Passport Office; the very agencies tasked with ensuring our right to vote from now on.

With the stroke of a pen, Britain has become the ‘papers please’ society that the Prime Minister had previously claimed he wanted to resist. 

Watchdog’s Concerns

Nearly 400 local councils will be required to provide a so-called ‘free’ ID scheme under the new law. This is despite the fact that many have lost half their funding. Regardless, they will now be tasked with another new duty: acting as gatekeepers at the ballot box.

You can already predict the confusion at polling stations, as low-paid poll workers struggle to decipher the labyrinthine rules on what ID is acceptable, as voters arrive not knowing that they need ID, let alone which kind will let them have their say.

Byline Times has spoken to those who don’t drive or go on holiday – and therefore lack both of the most common forms of ID voters will likely present at polling stations. Like millions of others, they will be left at the whim of their local council office when an election is called.

Another concerned voter this newspaper spoke to said: “My mother no longer has a driving licence or a passport. She pays her taxes and has always voted. Now she’s being disenfranchised.”

For others, the effort involved in having to visit their council offices to have their photo taken and their application for free ID countersigned will likely be enough of a barrier.

Supporters of mandatory ID point to the fact that people require it to collect a parcel. But this argument falls down when the list of ID the Post Office accepts is considered – which includes union and debit/credit cards. When the House of Lords attempted to expand the list of acceptable forms of ID in the Elections Bill, it was repeatedly knocked down by Conservatives.

Whether deliberately or by omission, the legislation is also riddled with loopholes that undermine its foundations. In February, the elections watchdog – the Electoral Commission – confirmed that the requirement to show ID will only apply to those voting in polling stations. Elderly voters are more likely to vote by post – which is good news for the Conservatives, who won the support of 67% of those aged 70+ in the 2019 General Election according to YouGov. 

In this context, the Elections Bill appears not to be about stopping people from voting twice – but stopping them from voting even once.

The independence of the Electoral Commission is another area of concern, with the new law encroaching on its oversight and powers.

Following the passing of the Elections Bill, a spokesperson said: “As the political finance regulator and the body which oversees free and fair elections, the way we work and our decisions must remain independent. This underpins fairness and trust in the electoral system, as well as public and cross party confidence in the Commission. We remain concerned about the potential impact of this measure… All parties have stated during the parliamentary consideration of the Elections Act that the independence of the Electoral Commission is vital to the functioning of a healthy democracy.”

The Commission has said that it is planning a public awareness campaign to ensure voters understand the requirement to show ID.

Another issue that has received even less attention than voter ID is the changes to the voting systems for mayoral and local elections in England. Under the new law, voters’ right to state a second preference is to be scrapped.

The Labour Party’s response to the Elections Bill has been muted. As one Labour peer told Byline Times: “No party is promising to repeal this legislation…Why not?”

Britain’s electoral processes – always precarious without a written, codified constitution behind them – appear to be being turned into a partisan weapon. How will opposition parties, and the political system as a whole, fight back?

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