tutor2u | The new elections bill: what's all the fuss about?

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The new elections bill: what's all the fuss about?

Mike McCartney

6th October 2021

What is it, and why is it proving to be so controversial? With activities

Author and political commentator, Jonathan Freedland, has been severely critical of the bill in a recent newspaper column.

Before we go on to consider the main arguments in the article, there is time for a recap.

How about defining democracy?

  • Defined as a system of government where the people either make political decisions themselves or have direct influence upon them.
  • In a democracy people have free access to information.
  • Government is elected and is accountable to the people.
  • The rule of law applies.
  • There is a peaceful transfer of power from one government to the next.
  • Government is carried on in the interests of the people.
  • There is a high degree of political freedom.

What about explaining ‘liberal democracy’

  • The term used to describe most, modern established western democracies such as Britain or the USA.
  • It is characterised by free and fair elections.
  • Government is limited, usually by a constitution.
  • Government is accountable to the people.
  • The rule of law applies with all citizens equal under the law and government itself subject to legal constraints. This implies an independent judiciary.
  • There is normally some degree of separation of powers between branches of government, with internal checks and balances – implying a strong, entrenched constitution.
  • There are special arrangements, often a ‘bill of rights’, protecting the rights of individuals and minorities.
  • The transition of power from one government to the next is peaceful, i.e. the losing parties accept the authority of the winners.
  • The existence of representative institutions.
  • There is free access to independent (from government) sources of political information. This implies freedom of expression and free media.
  • It is described as ‘liberal’ largely because it conforms to the nineteenth century philosophies of political liberalism as expounded by such figures as James Madison, Abraham Lincoln and John Stuart Mill, as well as being contained in the founding principles of the United Nations.

Lastly we can think generally about whether Britain can be described is a true democracy

  • We could say that there are free elections. Virtually all are entitled to vote and stand for office. Elections in Britain are, by and large, fairly run and there is little corruption. However there is a strong argument that elections to the Westminster Parliament are unfair (include material demonstrating the distorting effects of first past the post). Elections to devolved assemblies, however, are fairer.
  • The existence of an elected, accountable House of Commons is a positive element, but the House of Lords (to date anyway) remains unelected and so fails the ‘democracy test’.
  • All citizens are represented by an MP and can expect their grievances to be taken up and represented to public bodies by MPs. But sleaze and corruption like the MPs’ expenses scandal, and a whole host of others we could mention here, has caused the public to wonder whose interests are elected representatives are willing to put first.
  • Britain has now passed the Human Rights Act so the European Convention is binding on most public bodies. However, legal experts have pointed out that the ECHR has only been applied in a tiny number of cases, and most of the victories secured would have happened without reference to the ECHR.
  • There is a free, independent civil society, with many parties and pressure groups free to operate and to mobilise public opinion and represent popular demands to government. Though actions taken against public demonstrators, such as the G20 demo where people were detained for up to eight hours, or the treatment by police at the Sarah Everard vigil, put this into question.
  • There is a free media which is not controlled by government so the public have access to independent sources of information. That said, newspapers have no obligation to be politically neutral and may distort the message.
  • The rule of law applies and is protected by a largely independent judiciary. But statistical evidence shows that when the government is challenged in the courts it still wins far more cases than it loses.
  • There are a number of general criticisms of the British political system which can be added to the assessment. These include: the persistence of unelected elements such as the monarchy and House of Lords, the lack of separation of powers and therefore, arguably, an over-powerful executive and the lack of a codified, entrenched constitution.

Which brings us to the new Elections Bill, so it is the first paragraph in the arguments above that we are reconsidering. So what is the Elections Bill?

According to the House of Commons Library:

"The Bill would make various changes to election law and the Explanatory Notes confirm these focus on the Government’s priorities “that UK elections remain secure, fair, modern, inclusive and transparent”."

But it also goes on to explain that:

"Critics say this is a missed opportunity for an urgently needed wider reform of electoral law, which is accepted to be complex and fragmented.

The most controversial measure in the Bill is that voters must show photo ID before getting a ballot paper in a polling station. This would affect UK parliamentary elections and local elections in England.

The Government argues this will improve the integrity of elections and prevent someone’s vote from being stolen – the electoral offence of personation. It proposes a broad range of photo ID will be allowed, including a free voter card available to those without any other form of ID.

Opponents argue personation is rare and resources would be better directed at improving registration rates. They also point out that certain groups are less likely to have photo ID and this would make it harder for some people to vote.

The Bill also makes other changes to the administration of elections aimed at improving the security of postal and proxy voting and to improve the accessibility of elections for disabled voters."

Source: Elections Bill 2021-22 - House of Commons Library (parliament.uk)

In a long article criticising various actions by the current Prime Minister, Freedland takes aim at the Elections Bill:

"The Conservatives’ elections bill hands ministers powers over what has, until now, been an independent Electoral Commission. Suddenly, ministers will be able to deploy the commission as they see fit, using it to define what counts as election campaigning. A minister could order the commission to impose a criminal penalty on a group that had been campaigning for, say, higher NHS pay, six months before an election was called, by retroactively defining that effort as election spending. It’s not hard to imagine ministers using that power selectively to hurt their opponents. Little wonder that an alliance of charities and trade unions, convened by the Best for Britain group, has called the change “an attack on the UK’s proud democratic tradition and some of our most fundamental rights”.

The same bill would require voters to show photo ID before being handed a ballot, a remedy for the nonexistent problem of voter fraud – and a practice known to exclude poorer voters less likely to back the Conservatives. Meanwhile, note who got the money from a £1bn fund set aside by the government for struggling towns: in a remarkable coincidence, 39 of the 45 towns chosen are in constituencies with a Conservative MP, even when that meant cash going to a Tory-held seat rather than the poorer place next door. That looks a lot like using public money as an electoral war chest to keep Tory seats Tory."

Read the full article here: In plain sight, Boris Johnson is rigging the system to stay in power | Jonathan Freedland | The Guardian

Guardian readers have also chipped in on this issue. One has written to the paper to say:

"Removing the independence of the Electoral Commission is a huge change to our constitution. Putting Michael Gove in charge of the rules for elections is mind-boggling. Introducing mandatory voter ID is unnecessary as there is no problem to fix."

Another wrote:

"When studying history in the 1960s, I was taught how our proud record of electoral reform created a liberal democracy that was the envy of the world. Even Benjamin Disraeli, a Conservative premier, introduced a radical reform bill extending the right to vote. Now, his successors want to turn back the clock. Through gerrymandering, they plan to restore “old corruption” that prevailed before 1832."

See: Elections bill is a dangerous assault on democracy | Letters | The Guardian

In the name of political balance, we should give the government their say. According to the Evening Standard earlier this year:

"Boris Johnson has defended plans to require voters to prove their identity before casting ballots, despite condemnation from civil liberties groups and senior MPs on both sides of the Commons.

The Prime Minister said on Monday that it was “complete nonsense” to suggest he was trying to supress the votes of those who do not back the Tories by introducing the identification requirement.

Downing Street insisted it was a “reasonable approach” and that 99.6% of people in pilots requiring people to show photographic ID had managed to vote without difficulty.

Mr Johnson said the move, to be included in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday, is necessary to “protect democracy”...asked if he was trying to limit votes for opposition parties, the Prime Minister told the Downing Street press conference: “I would say that was complete nonsense and what we want to do is to protect democracy, the transparency and the integrity of the electoral process, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask first-time voters to produce some evidence of identity.”"

Source: PM defends plan to require ID to vote in the face of widespread backlash | Evening Standard

Activities

Define in your own words what is meant by 'democracy'

Research and explain the contents of the Elections Bill

Discuss whether you believe the new bill strengthens or weakens democracy

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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