Tory changes to election law seek to undermine the very fabric of our democracy

Each of the three new and constitutionally significant bills uses a legitimate and popular pretext as a cloak for more sinister intentions

Naomi Smith
Sunday 11 July 2021 14:49
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<p>Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill ‘conflates criminals with innocent people fleeing war by outlawing the very act of claiming asylum’</p>

Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill ‘conflates criminals with innocent people fleeing war by outlawing the very act of claiming asylum’

If you’re feeling like a lot going on right now – you’re not alone. In just two days, the Policing Bill passed through the House of Commons, the Elections Bill was introduced, and the home secretary’s Nationality and Borders Bill was published as well. Forty-eight hours is a long time in politics.

Each bill on its own represents the sort of seismic constitutional change that some countries would require a referendum on, but together they might be the most brazen assault on democratic freedoms that our country has ever seen.

The legislation is dense, hard to follow, and amends many other acts of parliament. In total, every clause and their explanatory notes come to 918 pages. We know because we’ve read them all. And it isn’t good news. In fact, it’s terrifying.

Let’s start with the Policing Bill. While it contains worthy reforms including longer sentences for domestic abuse, they are baked into 312 pages of legislation that could see protesters jailed for a decade just for being too loud. And there we were thinking that getting heard is the entire point of protesting.

Alongside the insult of equating perpetrators of domestic abuse with noisy protesters, this government has quickly forgotten that it was the loud protesters of Hong Kong that alerted the world to their injustice. They spurred the UK into offering them an escape route from imprisonment simply for raising their voices. Upon arrival, they might find that in the UK, things are going in a worryingly similar direction.

The second in this unholy trinity is the Nationality and Borders Bill which is being sold as a crackdown on abhorrent human traffickers. Instead, it conflates these criminals with innocent people fleeing war by outlawing the very act of claiming asylum, breaking with 70 years of international agreement between 145 countries, since the Geneva Convention of 1951.

By now you may have noticed a pattern. Each of these bills uses a legitimate and popular pretext as a cloak for more sinister intentions and this brings us onto arguably the most worrying of these three pieces of legislation.

The Elections Bill isn’t just about introducing voter ID, despite what’s been making the headlines. Buried in the detail are clauses that criminalise things that are fundamental to free and fair elections in the UK.

It guts the role of the Electoral Commission and hands unprecedented powers around elections to ministers. It lets them change the definition of “campaigning” at a whim, and, knowing that there are elections somewhere in the UK every year, allows them to curtail whatever they call “campaigning”, 365 days before any election.

As for preventing foreign interference in our elections, this bill actually makes it easier for tax exiles to make political donations, increasing the scope for dark money and vested interests to influence our elections.

Most worryingly of all, it imposes limits on groups, unions, charities and even individuals doing anything considered to be “intended to achieve a common purpose”. This is a phrase so open to interpretation that it could effectively exclude charities and voluntary groups from the electoral process and make it impossible for political parties with broad bases of support to organise effectively.

To that end, the bill means ministers can designate booking a meeting room as a criminal offence. This sounds trivial, and indeed it might have been designed that way, but it is a serious barrier to organising opposition that is vital to any democracy.

These measures would significantly undermine the prospect of a progressive alliance at the next election to deliver a fairer voting system in which all votes count, and would relegate both the outdated first-past-the-post and tactical voting to the dustbin.

Alongside other like-minded organisations, Best for Britain worked hard to encourage tactical voting at the last election, along with the Unite to Remain group which saw pro-remain parties stand down for a single candidate in 60 constituencies.

The Elections Bill, as it stands, would threaten this kind of collaboration at the next election, and the chance of unseating Boris Johnson’s regressive, anti-internationalist government. It demonstrates that the government fears a united opposition and wants to cut off avenues to accountability – in parliament, through the courts, on the streets and in elections.

Britain is greater than this. We value freedom, democracy and, despite rhetoric in certain newspapers, our nation has a long tradition of warmly welcoming people seeking sanctuary. Best for Britain, and many other organisations will carefully consider the next steps and our constitutional experts are already poring over every clause and every tiny detail of these proposed laws.

In the meantime, we urge the people of the United Kingdom to come together to back our campaign to stand up for democracy and reject this future vision that would make it harder for people to take part in elections, criminalise free speech and the right to protest.

This is a democratic crisis. It’s time for all of us to stand up to power and send a message that this government is not untouchable.

Naomi Smith is the chief executive of Best for Britain

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