In the USA the natural demographic shifts in the population are tending over time to favour traditionally Democrat voting groups such as Hispanics and African-Americans and the increasingly secular urban population while the white Conservative Evangelical Christian population in the rural Midwest and South which for decades have provided the bedrock of Republican support is slowly losing its demographic dominance and is predicted to shrink even further over the coming decades.
This poses a serious challenge to the longer term electoral prospects of the Republicans. The right is responding to this challenge, not by softening its policies and trying to increase its appeal to those groups which have traditionally rejected it, but by adopting measures to suppress the vote and making it harder for members of those groups which do not tend to vote Republican to register to vote and to get out to vote. They justify these measures by citing the need to prevent voter fraud, although studies have shown that electoral fraud is marginal in its effects and has no impact on the outcome of elections despite all the baseless screaming from Trump and his supporters that the presidential election was stolen from them.
The Conservatives in the UK face similar, although perhaps less acute, demographic challenges, and they are reacting to them in the same anti-democratic way as their American counterparts. The Conservative government’s controversial Elections Bill, which is due to be debated in the House of Commons this week, has been described by charities and campaigning groups including Save the Children, Greenpeace and the trades union movement as “an attack on the UK’s proud democratic tradition and some of our most fundamental rights”. The Electoral Reform Society has warned that the measures in the bill could lead to “disenfranchisement on an industrial scale” and make it far harder for young people, working class people, and older Black, Asian and minority ethnic people to vote.
Labour’s shadow democracy Minister Cat Smith said that the British Government’s own research showed that members of these groups were more likely to lack the photo-ID which the Bill proposes to make a compulsory requirement in order to vote. It is no coincidence that these groups are also statistically less likely to support the Conservatives. Cabinet Office-commissioned study released in May this year that found more than 2 million voters in the UK could lack the necessary ID to take part in future elections. Those who lack the correct documentation belong to demographics which tend to be less likely to vote Conservative. That’s precisely the point for this bill.
The new Conservative voter suppression measures will affect all elections in England and UK General Elections in Scotland and Wales. Like the Republican vote suppression measures in the USA, this elections Bill purports to tackle a problem of voter fraud which does not in fact exist. The Electoral Commission has said that the UK has low levels of electoral fraud. In 2019, there was only one conviction and just one police caution for impersonating another voter.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that suppressing the non-Conservative vote and not tackling non-existent voter fraud is the real intention behind this bill. The bill represents a brazen attempt by the Conservatives to rig elections in their favour. While the bill makes it significantly more difficult for members of sections of the public which don’t tend to favour the Conservatives to vote, it naturally does nothing at all to tackle the dark money donations which benefit the Tories, in fact it makes it worse. The bill proposes to allow tax exiles to fund the Conservative party for life.
Perhaps most alarmingly of all the Electoral Commission will be made answerable to Michael Gove and the Cabinet office. The Elections Bill confers new powers on Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove over the hitherto independent Electoral Commission, which oversees elections and regulates political finance. It will now be Gove who makes the final decision about whether some aspect of campaigning or party financing is in breach of electoral law. If that does not make you fear for the future of democracy in the UK, you’ve probably already drunk deep from the red white and blue Kool-Aid purveyed by GBeebies and the Daily Mail. The new bill will not only allow Gove to set the Electoral Commission’s strategic priorities, but will also allow him to unilaterally define campaigning and to ban campaigners and donors. The General Secretary of the TUC, Frances Grady warned in an open letter: “The bill bestows unprecedented and unchecked power to government over elections. At a stroke, the minister could ban whole sections of civil society, including unions and charities, from engaging in elections either by campaigning or donating.”
The letter adds: “Giving control of the Electoral Commission to ministers opens it to abuse by the government, turning it into a tool which they could use disproportionately against opposition campaigners while ensuring their own side receives less scrutiny.”
The UK already has a blatantly unfair electoral system for Westminster elections which allows the Johnson administration to govern with a large and unassailable majority in the House of Commons despite only winning a minority of the popular vote. That insult to democracy is compounded by the existence of the bloated and entirely unelected patronage and privilege factory which is the House of Lords. The Conservatives’ electoral bill does nothing to address the democratic deficits which blight the UK, far from it, the bill entrenches them and makes them worse, and gives Conservative ministers direct control of the Electoral Commission. The intention was never about making British democracy more secure and robust, it was always about securing and strengthening the control of the Conservative party, hobbling the opposition and rigging elections in favour of the Tories.
TheElections bill is further proof that the lazy assumptions of apologists for British nationalism of the superiority of the British system are unfounded and dangerous. There is nothing to prevent unscrupulous charlatans like Gove and Johnson from trashing democracy itself, and that is precisely what they are hell bent on doing. Scottish independence has now become an imperative for the defence of democracy itself.
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