On Monday, MPs will debate the Elections Bill at Report Stage and Third Reading. Liron Velleman looks at the consequences of the bill for antifascists, and why we need to fight it.
Democracy is one of the cornerstones of the anti-fascist tradition. Standing up to those who want to rip up our system and divide communities by exercising a right to vote has helped us fight the far-right BNP, radical-right UKIP and the Brexit party. The ballot box is a key tool for communities to amplify their voices, to say ‘you will not divide us’.
British democracy, for all its faults, has always managed to be a vanguard to the far right. When our democracy works, hatred loses. But we do know that our democracy isn’t perfect. Between a quarter and a third of eligible voters don’t vote in General Elections. Many feel distant from their representatives and the processes of democracy and politics. Democracy hasn’t been brought into the digital age sufficiently.
We know that these problems need to be solved, because when people don’t believe in or trust the political system, they look for alternatives – and all too often, that space is filled by those pushing a hateful agenda. Yet while there’s plenty that can be done to improve our democratic system for a better society, that is not what the Elections Bill is doing.
The debate about this Bill isn’t just about the technicalities. This Bill has grave consequences for the basics of how our democracy functions and fundamentally could deeply damage political trust in the country.
The Elections Bill has a number of dangerous clauses that weaken our democracy and give the far right opportunities to exploit. Firstly, it gives a substantial amount of power to the Secretary of State to govern how our election processes would work.
For example, the Secretary of State, currently Michael Gove, would have the power to decide who is classified as a campaigner and the ability to add, remove or define what individuals and organisations are allowed to spend more than a measly £700 in a campaign. These laws would be active from 365 days before an election and with the potential of a snap General Election at any point, this could effectively work as a permanent restriction.
So at any point, any group could face huge restrictions on their ability to speak out on the issues they face, be they a housing association, a support group for survivors of domestic violence, or a children’s charity. That doesn’t sound too much like ‘advancing democracy’ to me.
Secondly, proposed changes to rules around joint campaigning will only further restrict organisations, be they civil society, trade unions, charities or parties from working together. This means that the key alliances needed to create vital societal change will be held back even more.
This would have a silencing effect on many charities and organisations who would have cause for concern on falling foul of the strict rules or wouldn’t have the ability to fight through the vast extra paperwork.
Thirdly, the Bill would enable the Secretary of State to set the strategy and policy of the currently independent Electoral Commission. In other words,an independent body that oversees the impartiality of our elections would instead have it’s strategy and policy set by the Government. This is an extraordinarily dangerous proposal – giving Governments, now and in the future, the power to unanimously change how our elections are conducted and policed.
And finally, the bill proposes the introduction of voters having to show ID at a polling station. Already public trust and engagement in the political system is low, but this Voter ID requirement has the potential to disenfranchise millions of voters, disproportionately from under-voiced and marginalised communities.
Let’s be clear. The Government are going to make it harder for HOPE not hate to defeat the far right with this piece of legislation. What a sorry state of affairs.
It must be said that there are a few positive changes proposed. The Bill will include imprints on digital assets, so when you receive a political advert on social media during elections, you’ll know who it comes from. Polling stations will be made more accessible for electors with disabilities to vote in elections. Overseas Brits will have a smoother process to voting in UK elections. Nonetheless, these small but positive changes are easily overshadowed.
Trust is vital to a functioning democratic system. History shows us that when political trust is low, voters can turn to extreme voices. We see this more and more now, where political dissatisfaction and broader resentments have found a home in alternative far-right media or dangerous conspiracy theories.
The British public deserve to have a voice, and to know that the system is run in a fair way, for all involved. But the Elections Bill is a threat to the core of UK democracy, and a gift to those who seek to exploit political distrust. A Bill that infringes on freedom of expression for voters and campaigners, disenfranchises voters across the country and removes independent processes in favour of the Government.
If this piece has worried or angered you, why not send it to your MP or to a member of the House of Lords? HOPE not hate stands firmly against this piece of legislation and will continue to work with MPs and Peers alongside civil society organisations to fight it, and protect democracy.
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