Our ancestors fought hard for our democratic rights. They would turn in their graves if they saw the state of Britain’s warped electoral system today.
Our ancestors fought hard for our democratic rights. They would turn in their graves if they saw the state of Britain’s warped electoral system today. From the burden of voter ID to biased changes to the boundary system and legislation, inspired no doubt by events in America where Republican voter suppression tactics have been aggressively pursued, Tories seem to aim to conveniently stack democracy in their favour.
Until 2009, one person per household was able to complete the registration for each resident eligible to vote. However, emboldened by some small but well-documented cases of electoral fraud, in 2012, the Cameron government introduced the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. Under the bill, a new Individual Electoral Registration (IER) system was introduced, meaning individuals are required to register themselves, as well as provide their National Insurance number and date of birth on the application form so that their identity can be verified.
Within four years, the IER system was described as a ‘disaster.’ Voters whose existing details could not be confirmed by data matching with a single Department for Work and Pensions database of national Insurance numbers had to provide additional forms of ID.
Cameron’s system also banned universities and colleges from automatically registering students, which allowed them to still vote when they were away from home during term time.
In January 2015, Labour warned that 1 million people had fallen off the voters’ register within the previous year, and that the young and students – long-time deserters of the Tory party – had been hardest hit by the transition from household to individual registration.
Elections Act 2022
In 2022, the Tories took the axe once more to our democratic freedoms, via the Elections Act. Just days before the local May elections, new laws were rushed through parliament, with amendments and approval occurring within the space of less than 24 hours. Again, using a paltry number of voter fraud cases as validation for the legislative changes, voters are now required to show photo ID in the ballot box.
Northern Ireland has long had compulsory voter ID requirements in place, as have other countries. But unlike other nations, which tend to have mandatory national identity cards, the UK doesn’t, and voter ID is therefore more problematic. Even the government’s own research suggests that 9 percent of the public do not have recognisable and up-to-date photographic ID.
When it became law, warnings were made that despite voters without ID being able to apply for a free ID card from their local authority, the system presented more red tape to navigate, and the more onerous the process, the less likely people would be to vote, particularly disadvantaged groups. In the 2023 local elections, such fears came to fruition. The Electoral Commission confirmed that 14,000 people who went to a polling station were unable to vote – either because they had no ID with them, or the wrong type. The data also suggested that “disabled people and those who are unemployed were more likely than other groups to give a reason related to ID for not voting.”
In a critical report on Voter ID rules, the APPG on Democracy and the Constitution noted that the current system “disenfranchises more electors than it protects.” Co-authored by Robert Buckland, justice minister in 2021 when the bill was first introduced, the report stated the rules are too reliant on the decisions made by polling clerks which can be subjective and not open to appeal.
Adding to the insult, following the elections, Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg unapologetically admitted that the new ID rules were an attempt by the Conservatives to ‘gerrymander’ the electoral system by limiting voting among groups who traditionally align themselves to other parties.
Where have we seen similar gerrymandering efforts? Oh yes, in the United States. Following the 2020 US presidential election and unsuccessful attempts by Trump and other Republican officials to overturn the result, a sweeping effort was initiated by Republican lawmakers to make voting laws more restrictive across a number of states. From strengthening voter ID laws, to eliminating automatic and same-day voter registration, research by the Brennan Center for Justice found that as of October 4, 2021, more than 425 bills which would restrict voting access had been introduced in 49 states.
The tidal wave of restrictive voting that spread across Republican-controlled states was aided by ‘dark money.’ Tax filings revealed that the advocacy arm of conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation spent $5m on lobbying in 2021 to block voting rights in battleground states.
In Britain, many Tories have close links to US Republicans and their libertarian think-tanks (think Liz Truss who as foreign secretary, met and delivered speeches at the Heritage Foundation, praising it for being at ‘the forefront of Republican thinking’). We can now see alarming parallels between the Republican party’s destructive assault on voters’ rights and the Conservative government’s bid to reform the voting system in their favour.
In the UK, warnings have been made that hundreds of thousands of voters could be excluded from voting in the next general election because of voter ID laws. Based on a detailed study of the May local elections, the Electoral Commission has warned that in the general election, the laws could have a disproportionate effect on poorer people, those with disabilities, and people from minority ethnic backgrounds.
The damning report comes despite the fact that the Electoral Commission has itself been hijacked by the Tory government. Prior to the Electoral Act 2022 the commission was an independent invigilator of a fair election administration and issuer of penalties for electoral wrongdoing. Thanks to the Elections Act, the government is now able to direct the watchdog’s priorities and control the committee that it scrutinises.
Opponents of the change say it endangers free and fair elections and amounts to an “authoritarian power grab” that will let ministers shape how electoral law applies to their own party and to political opponents.
Fiddling the system for electing mayors
The Act also changed the voting system for mayors. In May 2021, following Labour’s victory in most mayoral elections across Engand, the then Home Secretary, Priti Patel, unveiled plans to change future mayoral elections in England from the Supplementary Vote (SV) system, whereby voters rank their two favourite candidates, to a first past the post system. Fears were raised that the changes could open a potential route to Tory victory in cities like Manchester and London. Prof Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, said: “It’s likely that first past the post would make it somewhat easier for the Conservatives to win if they could come up with a really good candidate.”
Depriving EU folk from voting in local elections
In yet another change to voting rights, after Britain left the EU, the UK government announced, “there should not be a continued, automatic right to vote and stand in local elections solely by virtue of being an EU citizen.” The move marked an end of the 1996 EU directive in Britain, which allows citizens of an EU members state to vote and stand as a candidate in local elections in another EU member state if they were resident there.
Following the local elections in May, Keir Starmer said it is ‘common sense’ that EU nationals should get voting rights in all UK elections. He also mooted the idea of reducing the voting age in Britain from 18 to 16. Since younger voters and EU citizens tend to favour parties such as Labour and the Liberal Democrats rather than the Tories, it wasn’t surprising that the Conservatives criticised both proposals, describing them as a Labour plan to ‘rig’ future elections.
Giving 16-year-olds the right to vote in local elections is something the Welsh Labour government recently introduced, as part of a major new package of democratic reforms. An important landmark in devolution, in May 2021, 16- and 17-year-olds were able to vote in Welsh Senedd elections for the first time. The same measure was introduced in Scotland ahead of the independence referendum in 2014. It has been in place for all Scottish elections since 2015. A report by researchers at Edinburgh and Sheffield universities has recommended a lowering of the voting age to 16 for all UK elections to “give more young people the opportunity to benefit.”
Alice Mazon, spokesperson for the British Youth Council’s Votes at 16 Youth Action Group, said lowering the voting age “forces politicians to pay attention to youth issues.”
Constituencies based on registered voters not population
Back at Westminster, further verification of how British democracy is being warped by the government’s deliberate manipulation of the voting system was recently unveiled by analysis by political commentator and pollster, Peter Kellner. The research showed that by determining constituencies according to the number of registered voters instead of the size of their populations, millions of ‘missing voters’ are ignored that hugely benefits the Tories. If the constituency boundaries were based on population not registered voters – as happens in most advanced democracies – then the number of extra Labour seats created would cut the Tories’ Commons majority by 22, the research concluded.
“A 22-seat variation in a close election could well be decisive. Indeed, the bias in the present system helped the Tories over the line in three of the last four general elections,” Kellner told the Observer.
Then there is proportional representation to consider. The Conservatives are doing very well under current first past the post system, in which MPs are elected with a majority in local constituencies. In the 2019 general election, the current system was found to have benefited the Conservative Party, because their vote is highly concentrated in specific areas. As the Electoral Reform explains, when it comes to first past the post, where you live is often the biggest factor in deciding how many representatives get elected to parliament.
Unsurprising then, that those within the Conservative party, unlike many within Labour, are not pitching for a move to proportional representation (PR), an electoral system in which the overall vote share a party wins determines the number of seats in the legislature. A new study by the electoral reform campaign group, Make Votes Matter, found that proportional voting systems can produce greater political stability. The group points to New Zealand, which, according to its analysis, has had greater political stability since 1996, when it moved from a first past the post system to PR.
Since the last general election, support for PR has gone from a relatively minority interest to the consensus position across the labour movement. A survey by the National Centre for Social Research in September 2022 found that for the first time since the British Social Attitudes survey began in 1983, more people in Britain favour introducing proportional representation for elections to the House of Commons than keeping the voting system as it is. At the 2022 Labour Party Conference, there was an overwhelming vote in favour of PR. Keir Starmer however does not seem to share his party’s support for PR something that has put him at loggerheads with party membership.
Sadly, it is a familiar story. Enthusiasm for PR tends to wane among the party leadership if they smell the promise of a decent majority under the existing system. But as the Electoral Reform Society explains, in 1997, a majority of Labour’s supporters were opposed to reform – making it easy for Tony Blair’s government to drop the idea. The big difference is that now a majority of Labour supporters are in favour.
In the US, despite a sinister Republican campaign, funded by right-wing think-tanks to dismantle democratic rights to steer the direction of election outcomes, there is good news. Automatic voter registration (AVR), a policy that streamlines the way Americans register to vote by making voter registration “opt-out” instead of “opt-in,” is gaining momentum across the country. Currently 20 states, mainly Democratic, have approved the policy, thereby significantly increasing voter registration.
There are glimmers of hope for democracy in Britain too. Democracy and electoral reform was a major theme at this year’s Labour Party conference. The Electoral Reform Society spoke on how proportional representation can be implemented in Britain, and the benefits it would bring to politics. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester, made an impassioned case for reforming the Westminster electoral system as part of a wider ‘rewiring’ of the UK’s political structures so they work better for all regions of the country.
In June, the Labour Party, for the first time, acknowledged in formal policy documents that our democracy has a problem called ‘first past the post’. As Labour List notes, the fact that it has is testament to how far the party’s understanding about the real impact of the electoral system has come.
After more than a decade of Conservative mismanagement, where anti-democratic tactics have left people disillusioned with democracy, cleaning up a warped electoral system is long overdue. Our only hope is that
Labour, which has lost seats because of electoral boundary unfairness, will reform the current system, and give the country a much-needed democratic boost.
Right-Wing Media Watch – Braverman’s ‘fury’ at demo chants dominate Tory front pages
Following the pro-Palestine rally in London last weekend, the Home Secretary held a meeting with the Metropolitan Police commissioner to discuss the force’s response to the protests. Suella Braverman demanded that the police take action about people shouting ‘jihad’ in Britain, after a video emerged of a man repeatedly chanting the Arabic word.
All the Tory nationals devoted their front pages to the story on Monday, barking the same deliberately inflammatory rhetoric on Palestine they have used since the conflict began.
The Daily Mail spoke of a furious Home Secretary demanding to know why the police adopted a ‘low-key’ approach and ‘stood by’ as a man chanted ‘jihad’ at a pro-Palestine rally.
Similar outrage was strewn across the Sun’s front page. Sensationalising the allegations that a London Underground tube driver led passengers in chants of “Free Palestine” on the Central Line on Saturday, the tabloid splashed: ‘Fury at Tube driver’s anti-Israel chants over train tannoy. But clueless TfL bosses claims they don’t know who is he.”
“The fury,” the front page continued, “came as cops faced accusations of soft policing after looking on as members of an Islamist group yelled ‘jihad’…”
The following day, the same newspapers were at it again, using similar provocative language to describe Rishi Sunak’s alleged reprimand of the Met for ‘not acting on ‘Jihadi’ chants,’ as the Express put it.
What these inflammatory headlines deliberately ignore is that there are huge flaws in the ministers’ demands. A more measured report about the fall-out in the Guardian, informs how, according to Neil Basu, the UK’s former head of counter-terrorism, there are gaps in the law that would allow words such as ‘jihad’ to be shouted at rallies which were known to the government but not acted upon.
In 2021, the government was told laws should be toughened in a report on tackling extremism co-authored by Sir Mark Rowley, now head of the Met. The report’s conclusions were supported by counter-terrorism policing. The Met also said “jihad” had numerous meanings and it believed, after consulting with the CPS, that no offence had been committed. As the Guardian notes, experts in terrorism laws said the Met’s position was correct.
Since the ‘jihad’ chanting row erupted, senior police officers have publicly spoken of their disproval of the government interfering in police matters. A senior Met officer told i newspaper that those within the force were frustrated with the Home Secretary after she criticised them for failing to arrest protesters making the chats.
The whole political and media furore around the ‘jihad’ chanting seems to be another example of an incompetent Tory government, which was told a while ago that the law allowed it but did nothing about it, desperately placing the blame elsewhere to try and conceal their ineptitude. In this case, the Met police are the scapegoats. All the while, of course, their nonsense has the backing of the right-wing press, which, it seems, will headline any old rubbish, particularly when it comes from Suella Braverman.
Woke-bashing of the week – Government’s pledge to end ‘woke’ science draws rebuke from scientists
‘Kicking woke ideology out of science,’ was one of the ‘long-term decisions for a brighter future,’ announced by the Conservatives at their annual conference. Yes really, the unashamedly anti-woke zealots running the country made plans to ‘depoliticise’ science a key message at the party conference. Needless to say, the scientists have been left dumbfounded and confused by the pledge, which was announced in a speech by Michelle Donelan, secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology.
Science is “under attack,” Donelan told the conference, adding the government wants to protect “scientific research from the denial of biology.” She claimed scientists are being “told by university bureaucrats that they cannot ask legitimate research questions about biological sex.”
The Tory minister also announced the launch of a review into the use of sex and gender questions in scientific research and statistics, with a goal of producing “robust guidance” by spring 2024.
Scientists were left none too pleased about being defended in this way.
An open letter to the government by scientists about equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in science dated October 11, tore apart Donelan’s speech. It stated: Her views “do not reflect the view of UK scientists. On the contrary, many are appalled, saddened, and angry that the government claims to be speaking for science in this way.”
Accusing the government of attempting to “stoke so-called culture wars and make the UK increasingly hostile towards people identifying as intersex, non-binary and/or trans,” the letter criticised what it refers to as “over-simplistic or scientifically illiterate arguments” over the use of gender identities and biological definitions of sex.
Materials scientist Rachel Oliver of the University of Cambridge, who co-authored the letter, says the Tories’ anti-woke rhetoric “runs counter to their own goals” of making Britain a “science and technology superpower.”
Linguist David Adger of Queen Mary University of London, who signed the letter, said: “Saying to biologists that they are denying biology is ludicrous.
“It’s also dangerous. It makes people distrustful of science, and when that happens you get conspiracies emerging.”
The notion that science can be ‘depoliticised’ is ludicrous enough. But to be so publicly berated by the very people and sector it is trying to, nonsensically, defend, shows the Tories’ assault on ‘woke science’ for what it actually is – the latest stab at identifying a woke enemy within from a party that is so desperately bereft of ideas that it’s clinging on to culture wars.
Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch