The Speaker
Saturday, 25 May 2024 – 20:28

A ‘dark day for democracy’ as Elections Bill passes through parliament

The controversial Elections Bill was passed by the House of Lords on Wednesday, after much toing-and-froing between the House of Commons and the House of Lords; it paves the way for significant changes in UK electoral law.

The bill was defeated in the House of Lords on Monday with a majority of 66, but was returned to the upper house earlier than many had expected, meaning that many opposition peers – who account for most of the house – were not present for the vote.

The bill contains several clauses that have been decried by various politicians, activists, and pro-democracy advocacy groups as “authoritarian”. Included in the bill are voter ID requirement laws, and a government minister being assigned to the committee which oversees the Electoral Commission and assigns its priorities. The Electoral Commission “is an independent agency that regulates party and election finance and sets standards for how elections should be run.” Many groups and commentators have raised concerns that government oversight of the body intended to ensure election rules are adhered to could allow them to potentially influence (or at least lay the groundwork to influence) future elections.

Meanwhile, voter ID requirement laws, while seeming like a good idea for reducing voter fraud at face value, can undermine democracy in practice. The government had already run a voter ID trial scheme in 10 regions of the UK. In said trial, 1,968 people were initially refused a ballot paper for not carrying appropriate ID, with 740 of those either unwilling or unable to return to the ballot box later on voting day. In contrast, there were only 34 alleged incidents of in-person voter fraud in the 2019 elections, with similar numbers for every election for the past decade, with none higher than 45. It has also been raised as a point of concern that the portions of society with the lowest rate-of-access to appropriate ID are portions that mostly vote for parties currently in opposition.

The bill also makes the London Mayoral election function in a “first-past-the-post” manner, replacing the two-round run-off system currently in place. This will result in voters having disproportionate power depending on where they live in London.

A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission said, in response to the bill passing:

“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, and look to the formal consultation on the Government’s proposed statement once that is available.”
“All parties have stated during the parliamentary consideration of the Elections Bill that the independence of the Electoral Commission is vital to the functioning of a healthy democracy. The Commission will continue to act in an independent and impartial way in order to help maintain public confidence in elections across the UK.”

The bill passes just days after the passing of the equally controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which many have claimed effectively abolishes the right to protest. The bill grants additional powers to the police to stop a protest if it is deemed to be an “annoyance”, and effectively allows the home secretary to choose which protests can go ahead – largely defeating the very point of protesting.

The Election bill, Police and Crime bill, and the Nationality and Borders bill being passed in quick succession have led to many raising concerns that the UK is becoming increasingly authoritarian, with the government passing a plethora of allegedly inhumane laws alongside legislation preventing the population from opposing government plans. The Prime Minister has a record of being derisive of means by which the electorate can hold the government to account, recently dismissing lawyers opposed, on the grounds of protecting human rights, to plans to transfer asylum seekers to Rwanda as a “formidable army of politically motivated lawyers who for years have made it their business to thwart removals and frustrate the government”. It also comes shortly after the government has attempted to form deals and foster stronger relations with various nations ruled by authoritarian administrations guilty of various human rights abuses, including trying to form an oil deal with Saudi Arabia, a free-trade deal with India, and, of course, the aforementioned refugee-transfer plan with Rwanda.

A crossbench group of peers had been leading opposition to the Election bill, helped by pro-democracy groups like Fair Vote UK and Best for Britain.

Kyle Taylor, director of campaign group Fair Vote UK, accused the government of voting “to officially end the independence of the Electoral Commission” and that the new laws allow ministers to “effectively rig election rules in their favour”.

“This is how countries slide into authoritarianism. First you take control of the institutions, then you rig them in your favour and ban noisy protest so people can’t fight back. It’s a dark day for democracy.””>April

Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said:

“We cannot allow Boris Johnson to rewrite the rulebook in order to prop up his failing Government.”

“The Liberal Democrats are committed to free and fair elections, as every political party should be. We will continue to resist the Conservative’s constant attempts to undermine our democracy and ensure everyone can make their voice heard.”

Labour Peer Lord Blunkett said of the changes:

“This is so fundamental to the way in which we conduct our democracy, our election processes, and therefore the transparency and trust that people should expect … it will come home to bite them, I promise them.”

Meanwhile Conservative peer Lord True insisted that the bill was necessary and did not overstep acceptable bounds, and that is a “reasonable approach to reforming the accountability of the Electoral Commission whilst respecting their operational independence”.

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