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Editorial: What motivates the Conservatives' anti-democratic Elections Bill?

WARNINGS that the Elections Bill poses a “serious threat” to democracy in Britain are growing louder.

Controversial voter ID requirements are just one of the anti-democratic elements in the Bill.

That demands for photographic voter ID are aimed at suppressing the vote among younger, poorer and black voters is clear enough. 

The official reason — to prevent voter fraud — is clearly a fig leaf, given there was only one conviction and one police caution for voter impersonation in 2019.

Voter impersonation is far too rare to pose any threat to the integrity of elections, while as 3.5 million voters lack any form of photo ID, making it a requirement will discourage large numbers from voting.

Other parts of the Bill are just as worrying: giving ministers new power over the Electoral Commission so they can suppress political campaigning by charities, grassroots campaigns such as the People’s Assembly, Black Lives Matter or Extinction Rebellion, and, crucially, trade unions.

The government’s interest in restricting democratic engagement is superficially puzzling. 

The right to vote has become a major political battleground in the United States, where Republican-controlled states are passing a variety of voter suppression laws and a majority Democrat Congress is looking to pass federal legislation to stop them. 

Republican anxiety over Democrat-leaning poor and black voters takes place in a different context, however. 

The Democrats won the last US presidential and congressional elections, so, while indefensible on democratic principle, using administrative means to stop people voting for them makes sense to a sufficiently cynical opponent, especially as their victories were narrow and relatively minor differences in turnout could have changed the result.

In Britain, where the Conservatives not only enjoyed a crushing victory at the last elections but have demonstrated an ability to draw voters from the poorest socio-economic categories away from Labour, the rationale for such changes is less obvious. 

The Tories are a cynical bunch and it could be argued that — as with David Cameron’s infamous 2014 Lobbying Act that left lobbyists alone while cracking down on political activity by the labour movement — they are calmly exploiting their current majority to rig things in their favour just because they can.

Yet a deeper explanation lies in the experience of the Jeremy Corbyn years, including the short-lived increase in voter turnout of 2017.

Even if the number of habitual non-voters who came out to vote that year has been overstated, the fact that it is possible for a radical political platform to appeal to them will have worried Establishment politicians in a country where a full third of the electorate do not vote.

The Tories, shrewder politically than the Labour right, have indicated a deeper understanding of the collapse of confidence in the status quo — exploiting it to great effect in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. 

They are less likely to forget how close Britain came to electing a socialist prime minister in 2017. 

The extraordinary authoritarianism of Boris Johnson’s government, as expressed in its draconian policing Bill and laws to place state agents beyond the law, is a strong indication that the Conservatives are determined to prevent forces outside Westminster from rudely interrupting business as usual in future.

They know that Corbynism grew out of extraparliamentary movements such as Stop the War and trade unions, and they are not ready to risk a repeat however far off one might seem.

Our response will only be effective if it can mobilise the extraparliamentary power that the Tories are so determined to squash. 

Labour does not have the numbers to beat this at Westminster and it has turned its back on the mass movement politics that might stand a chance of doing so. The campaign against the Elections Bill, like that against the policing Bill, will have to be fought from the ground up.

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