The most important fact about the general election? It’s rigged.

'Most Britons think that the electoral system is fair and clean, but it is rigged in a variety of ways.'

Voting Ballot Box

Prem Sikka is an Emeritus Professor of Accounting at the University of Essex and the University of Sheffield, a Labour member of the House of Lords, and Contributing Editor at Left Foot Forward.

The UK general election on 4 July is an opportunity to reinvigorate society by ending 14 years of austerity, poverty and destruction of public services. The election is likely to be the dirtiest ever as political parties will excel at obfuscation, spin and misinformation. At the very least, people expect elections to be fair but for election integrity the UK is ranked lower than Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Portugal and most of western Europe. That ranking will take a further hit as the general election is rigged in variety of ways.

In the UK’s First-Past-the-Post system the government chooses the most advantageous time for the election in the hope of securing a big majority in the House of Commons on a minority vote. This system was considered to be corrupt and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 required that parliaments should last for full five years, unless parliament voted against that. Amidst the Brexit chaos, the Conservative government saw an opportunity to increase its representation in parliament but could not secure a vote to force an election. In August 2019, the Monarch with advice from Prime Minister Boris Johnson prorogued parliament. In September 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the prorogation was unlawful. Subsequently, parliament voted to hold a general election in December 2019.

After its election victory, the Conservative government replaced the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 with the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022. It enables the Prime Minister to call an election, without a vote in the Commons. On 22 May 2024, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unilaterally called an election as he envisaged possible electoral advantage – the rate of inflation had declined, the Rwanda Bill had been passed by parliament and workers had received the 2p cut in the rate of national insurance.

Electoral watchdogs are considered to be a nuisance as they watch over the rules to ensure fairness. The UK government has weakened the oversight. Since the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, elections have been overseen by the Electoral Commission, a body independent of the government. Its tasks include public information campaigns, providing election data, administration of elections and referendums, and oversight of donations and loans. In recent years, the Conservative Party has been fined by the Electoral Commission for failure to accurately report election spending, cash donations, non-cash donations, loans and keep proper accounting records.

The government responded by revoking the independence of the Electoral Commission. Following the Elections Act 2022, the Commission is now controlled by the government. Ministers can make any rule at any time without parliamentary approval and have powers to ban organisations or campaigning styles. The government issues a “Strategy and Policy Statement” which the Commission must follow. Through such a Statement the Commission can be instructed to focus on public information campaigns on selected demographical and geographical areas which typically support the government.

Around 8m people are missing from the electoral register and millions are not registered accurately. The UK is ranked 60th out of 169 countries for encouraging people to register and vote. Rather than finding ways to encourage people to register, for example the issuance of national insurance numbers could be accompanied by an automatic entry in the electoral register, the Elections Act 2022 has added complications. For the first time, it requires people to produce an officially approved photo ID to vote at polling stations. Critics argued that photo ID would dissuade the poor, old, disabled, homeless and minorities from voting as many would not have the approved ID or are unable or unwilling to navigate the bureaucracy. The government was not persuaded and claimed that it is needed to control electoral fraud. For 2019 general, local, mayoral and European Union elections, there were five convictions for fraud. There were two convictions for fraud in 2022 and one in 2023.

The rhetoric of electoral fraud camouflaged attempts to manipulate elections. After major losses in the 2023 local elections, Jacob Rees-Mogg, former Business Secretary and a key supporter of the ID legislation, said that the ID rules were an attempt to “gerrymander” the electoral system. He added that “Parties that try and gerrymander end up finding their clever scheme comes back to bite them, as dare I say we found by insisting on voter ID for elections … We found the people who didn’t have ID were elderly and they by and large voted Conservative, so we made it hard for our own voters and we upset a system that worked perfectly well.”

In the May 2024 local elections 14,000 people, including former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, were prevented from voting due to failure to present acceptable photo ID. Some 14% of voters are still unaware that they need a photo ID to vote in person. 15% of people living in London do not have suitable ID to vote in elections. One-in-five 18 to 34-year-olds in London do not have the necessary photographic ID, in contrast to a figure of 10% for people aged over 65. Lack of suitable ID may dissuade many from voting.

“No Taxation without Representation” was a key slogan in the US war of independence, but the opposite is true in the UK. Corporations and their controllers have long dodged UK taxes but secure economic advantages by funding political parties. The electoral register has now been swelled by individuals who do not live in the UK or pay little or no tax in the UK. Following the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 British national living abroad for more than 15 years could not vote in the UK elections. The 15 year limit has been removed by the Elections Act 2022. Some 3.5million British nationals living abroad, roughly 5,500 per constituency, are eligible to vote in the last constituency they were registered in before leaving the UK. This means that overseas voters with little or no contact with a local area will be able to vote and have a decisive influence on matters relating to local schools, hospitals, housing, pubic services and levels of taxation. Whilst major parties may have the resources to lobby expats, independents and smaller parties don’t.

The vote for expats is dressed up in nationalistic rhetoric, but money is a major reason. Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 political donors had to be on the electoral register. Donations can also be made by companies registered in the UK though do not have to trade or make profits in the UK. Such rules made it difficult for rich tax exiles to fund parties though determined individuals used a series of companies to disguise donations to the Conservative Party. As the expats now have a vote and can fund political parties without any constraints. As one lawmaker observed – “Brits who live in Russia and haven’t returned to the UK for decades could now donate vast sums from Moscow to political parties here”. How many large donations will be rewarded with government contracts and lax laws and enforcement? The muzzled Electoral Commission will be able to do little to check the source of money or whether it is provided by a hostile state keen to influence electoral outcomes.

The Conservative Party is the main beneficiary of the foreign cash flowing to UK political parties and has received large sums from individuals with financial interests in Dubai, Indonesia and Thailand and money launderers from Eastern Europe.

In 2023, UK political parties received £93m in political donations. Labour received £31m. The Conservatives received £48m, including £5m from businessman Frank Hester who commented on Diane Abbott, Britain’s first black female MP and said that she made him “want to hate all black women” and that she “should be shot”.

The spending limit for each party was £19m for the 2019 general election. The Conservative Party spent £16.5m, including £6m on unsolicited material. Labour spent less than £12m in 2019. Flushed with cash and expecting more from billionaire tax exiles, the Conservative government has increased the election spending limit to nearly £35m. Any election expenditure incurred by trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party will count as Labour expenditure but the same does not apply to right-wing think-tanks backing the Conservative Party.

Most Britons think that the electoral system is fair and clean, but it is rigged in a variety of ways. Whatever the outcome of formal voting, one party always wins. That is the party of the rich and corporations. They fund political parties to shape policies and organise issues off the political agenda. All major parties claim to be a party of business, and none claims to represent the poor. They promise no tax rises to corporations and the rich, and shy away from equitable distribution of income and wealth. Democracy remains a distant possibility.

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