Tory MPs call it reform, but the elections bill looks more like a heist

By Rafael Behr
Voting in Balham, London, in May 2021
‘Boris Johnson’s government is conjuring the phantom menace of fraudulent voters and erecting bureaucratic barriers to participation.Voting in Balham, London, in May 2021 Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

When judging a law that rewrites the rules of democracy, the test is not whether it does what the current government promises, but what it might be in the hands of the worst imaginable government.

To facilitate that exercise for Conservative MPs, here is a thought experiment: what might they say about the elections bill, debated in the Commons on Tuesday, if it were offered to them by a Labour prime minister?

My guess is that they would denounce it as a ploy to rig the system and entrench the incumbent regime in power. They would decry reforms to the Electoral Commission as an assault on the integrity of the ballot by imposing ministerial control over the independent regulator.

In this alternative universe, Boris Johnson writes a newspaper column savaging plans to make voters present photo ID at polling stations. He paints a dystopian picture of vetting commissars obstructing freeborn Englishmen in the exercise of their democratic rights. He notes the vanishingly small incidence of voter impersonation – the fraud that a photo is meant to eliminate. It is a bogus threat, he says, used as cover, where the real intent is to deter what ministers see as the wrong kind of person from turning out. He bemoans the pointless burden that issuing new electoral ID cards will place on cash-strapped local authorities. He calls it a “plastic poll tax”, as indeed he did in 2005 when Labour tried to introduce a national ID card regime.

But Johnson says none of these things, because his is the government conjuring the phantom menace of fraudulent voters and erecting bureaucratic barriers to participation. The Tory defence is that any fraud is too much; that photo checks are inoffensive and commonplace. They are already a feature of elections in Northern Ireland (where gaming the ballot has historically been more of an issue). If the objection is that some people don’t have ID, the problem is easily solved by getting it.

That overlooks the correlation between people without photo ID and those vulnerable or impoverished citizens for whom just getting one is not as simple as it sounds. In the family of illiberal arguments, this is a cousin to the claim that someone with nothing to hide has nothing to fear. It sounds reasonable enough. But it subtly moves the balance of power away from the citizen towards whichever authority gets to decide what counts as something to hide. The equivalent shift in the elections bill is on the question of who gets to vote and on what terms.

That is why the integrity of the regulator, sabotaged in the bill, matters so much. The new law would impose a duty on the electoral commission to heed a “strategy and policy statement” drafted for its benefit by the relevant secretary of state, currently Michael Gove. This statement sets out “priorities of Her Majesty’s government relating to elections, referendums and other matters”, but can also cover “guidance” relating to the commission’s work and “any other information (for example, about the roles and responsibilities of other persons) the secretary of state considers appropriate”.

The commission’s loyalty to those instructions will be judged by the Speaker’s committee, an obscure conclave of MPs that currently has a Tory majority, including Gove himself. Thus, the body that invigilates the fair conduct of the electoral process will have its agenda dictated by the ruling party. It is not clear, under such a regime, how all the other parties are meant to retain confidence in the independence of the regulator.

The commission will also be stripped of its power to prosecute some violations of electoral law. Notable recent subjects of investigation include breaches of spending rules by Vote Leave and the opaque origin of funds for Johnson’s refurbishment of the Downing Street flat. Perhaps there are nobler motives for muzzling the regulator than vengeance and a love of impunity, but those are the obvious ones. And when governments start tampering with the alarm system that protects democracy they have a particular duty not to make it look as if they are planning a heist.

This impression is hardly dispelled when Conservative MPs have openly speculated about the need to bring the Electoral Commission to heel or, if it won’t tame itself, scrap the watchdog entirely.

Opponents of the elections bill note similarities with Republican tactics of voter suppression in the US and with the capture of independent civil institutions that is suffocating political pluralism in Hungary and snuffed it out in Russia. But international comparisons have limited potency in the parochial world of British politics, suffused as it is with democratic self-righteousness. Our democracy is sheathed in a flimsy confidence that demagoguery and authoritarianism are conditions that afflict foreign nations with immature institutions.

There is a corporate arrogance, in particular, around the Conservative party which sees itself as so intrinsic to the fabric of British democracy, so densely wound around its foundations, that it could not logically be capable of undermining the structure. That attitude breeds contempt for something like the Electoral Commission, created only this century. It is seen as a vulgar parvenu quango that might have statutory powers but has not earned the cultural entitlement to tell Tory MPs how they should spend their hard-earned campaign donations.

In any other context, many of those MPs might cry foul at a bill that puts a furtive hand on the electoral scales. In opposition, they would call it cynical and sinister. Even in government, they might pause, too, if they pondered how powers taken by Tory ministers today might be wielded by some other party in the future. But regime change is not a scenario the Conservatives see as imminent, and keeping it remote is their reason for changing the law.

• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist

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