The Tories call it electoral reform. Looks more like a bid to rig the system 

Showing you papers before you vote, surely this is something our “libertarian” Simon Jupp MP will have to oppose? – Owl

Nick Cohen

Picture the chaos at the next general election. Officials refuse to allow voters into polling stations because the Johnson government has denied democratic rights to everyone who cannot or will not produce photo ID.

Some are angry because they don’t have the required documents. Others sound paranoid as they tell reporters they don’t want to show passports and driving licences because they fear state surveillance. If nothing else, Covid has taught us the extent of the conspiratorial mentality. On election day the government reveals it is content to encourage a climate of paranoia, if it will give the Conservatives an advantage. Trust in the integrity of the election withers as the scale of voter suppression becomes apparent.

Last Monday, the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee, chaired, I must emphasise, by a Conservative MP, William Wragg, said that if Northern Ireland were a guide, ID checks would cause turnout to drop by 2.3%. On this measure, the Tories would disfranchise about one million of the 47.6 million people registered to vote.

Unlike Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK has no record of sectarian gerrymandering and civil war to justify controls. The facts of recent history do not concern Michael Gove. He has pursued vote rigging with Gollum-like obsessiveness since 2019. His oppressive intent is evident in the failure to produce proof that frauds are turning up at polling stations and stealing the identities of honest citizens. The protests of people denied the ballot would be everywhere in the media if that scare story were true. As it is, there was only one conviction for impersonation after the 2019 election, and the Commons committee described the government’s pretence that there was a hidden epidemic of voter fraud as “simply not good enough”.

It is evident in the speed with which the government is forcing its elections bill through parliament. It is evident in the lack of public consultation and bipartisan support. It is evident, above all, in the government’s choice of targets.

In a satirical twist, the Conservatives have assigned the task of ending the level playing field of free and fair elections to Gove’s Department for Levelling Up. They believe people without driving licences or passports will be poor and less likely to vote Conservative. I wouldn’t count on that in every Leaver town, and nor do ministers. They are leaving nothing to chance. Expats, who are more likely than not to be Tories, will be able to vote, however long they have lived abroad. All foreign nationals will be denied the vote, however long they have lived in the UK. People over 60, who disproportionately vote Conservative, will be able to use their travel passes as photo ID. The young, who don’t, won’t.

If this were happening in Hungary or Zimbabwe, we would know what to say: a corrupt clique was bending the rules to maintain its power. We don’t know what to say when election rigging happens in our own country because a self-satisfaction born of the UK’s lucky history holds that “it can’t happen here”. Even when it is happening here. Protests about the elections bill are confined to a nerdish group of politicians, journalists and academics.

The fate of the Electoral Commission ought to shake the complacent. Boris Johnson is threatening the independence of the referee that protects against corruption. The elections bill allows ministers to set the “strategy and policy” the commission must follow. The government claims it has been forced to act because of loss of confidence in the commission. The Commons investigation said there was no more evidence that the public had lost faith in the commission than there was of hordes of frauds at polling stations.

It warned instead of the danger of the government abusing its power to help it stay in office, even if abuse means undermining “public confidence in the effective and independent regulation of the electoral system”.

We risk becoming like the US where every vote is disputed by the losing side, and impartial arbiters are replaced with political lackeys. Indeed, we are already on that path. Whether in the courts, broadcasting or the regulatory system, undermining checks and balances has been the modus operandi of this government.

The scandal that led to the Conservatives losing North Shropshire began when the cabinet organised an assault on Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary commissioner for standards. She found against Owen Paterson for promoting companies that were paying him £110,000 a year for his bespoke services. Johnson, himself the subject of Stone’s inquiries, wanted the rules changed to give him and his colleagues more freedom to sponge at will. Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, showed his unfitness for public office by saying he found it “difficult” to see how Stone’s career could survive such an impertinence.

Stone saw off her enemies. By contrast, Lord Geidt, Johnson’s ministerial standards adviser, now cuts a pathetic figure. The credulous man actually believed the prime minister when he said he knew nothing about a businessman buddy, Lord Brownlow, paying for the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat until the media mentioned it in February 2021. A scrupulous investigation by the electoral commission found Johnson was tapping Brownlow for money in November 2020. Now Johnson wants to punish the Electoral Commission.

On Tuesday, Wragg wrote to Geidt to ask how he was independent when he did not appear to have the power to conduct proper investigations. “What steps are open to you if you feel that, in the course of an investigation, you may have been misled?”

The answer this government wants to hear is “none”, and not only from Geidt.

Once cautious Conservatives worried that, if they used their majority in parliament to hound their enemies, their opponents would one day turn the weapons they forged on the right.

Perhaps today’s Conservatives believe there will never be a Labour government that treats the Tory press the way they treat the BBC, or twist the rule of law and regulation of elections to suit the Labour rather than the Tory cause. After the revival of Labour and Liberal Democrat fortunes, you might find it ludicrous for Conservatives to think they can be in power for ever. If so, I urge you to look at how they are playing with electoral law to give themselves the best possible chance of doing just that.