“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” One week in February 2022 captured the essence of the opening paragraph of Dickens’ masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities. The contradictions of life in 18th century Paris and London, that Dickens considered his 19th century readers would identify with, are ever present today in the 21st century, as we hurtle through political crises, pandemics and towards the brink of war. But are they really?
One thing seems certain: democracy is under threat. And it was for that reason I stood in Parliament Square on Saturday, 5 February to protest against the Elections Bill. It felt good to be back on familiar ground, where during the Brexit years I had gathered with friends from Bath for Europe and the national coalition of pro-EU groups, to protest a range of legislature designed to cut ties with our closest neighbours and return to an isolationist Britain. Then we had worn our ‘bEUrets’, waved placards and EU flags, but this protest was different.
Organised by Proportional Representation (PR) campaign movement, Make Votes Matter, as part of the Democracy Defence Coalition, a broad platform of speakers had been invited. Under blue skies and a newly uncaged Big Ben, in front of the statue of leading suffragette Millicent Fawcett, the omens looked good for democracy on that day. Flags fluttered in the breeze along with a range of placards demanding voting reform. Even the three unwise men Trump, Johnson and Gove made an appearance, bearing signs with the slogans ‘Fear truth, just invent conspiracy’, ‘Disenfranchise the disenfranchised’ and ‘Levelling down democracy’. For additional authenticity, Johnson had fished a clown hat from his limitless box of dressing up clothes and it balanced precariously on his big round papier-mâché head. A makeshift stage had been erected and speaker after speaker lambasted the Elections Bill which has passed its third reading in the House of Commons and its first reading in the House of Lords.
The key issues
The key contentious issues are:
- The government’s plan to introduce ‘first-past-the-post’ (FPTP) voting for electing mayors and police and crime commissioners.
If all our elections were run by FPTP, then we would be on a par with some democratically dodgy nations. According to one speaker, Naomi Smith, CEO of Best for Britain,
“… the only other (European) country using first-past-the post is Belarus. This and other bills are an authoritarian power grab.”
As Tom Brake, former Liberal Democrat MP and now director of the cross-party pressure group Unlock Democracy, pointed out, the Elections Bill is a
“… self-preservation bill ─ entrenching support for the government (Tory) party.”
- The requirement of compulsory photo ID for voting.
This cruel addition to the bill has the potential to disenfranchise many people, currently estimated by the Electoral Commission at 3.5 million without photo ID. Especially affected would be the poor, elderly and disabled who might not have a passport or driving licence and could be discouraged from applying for an ID card. It’s also unnecessary as, according to data from the Electoral Commission, there have been only two convictions for voter fraud since 2017 but, as those most likely to be affected, are less likely to be Tory voters, the government sees this as an instrument in securing its electoral base. Maddy Dhesi, a campaigner on the3million Young Europeans Network, shared her experiences as a first-time voter. She said that, had the ID system been in place, she would not have been able to vote at the last election as her documentation would not have been ready on time. She also challenged the government’s assumption that most people have a passport or driving licence and despaired that, given that voting registration in areas such as London is low, the hurdles imposed by the bill would worsen rather than improve the situation. In a further blow to EU citizens, the automatic right to vote in local elections is set to be removed for those without settled or pre-settled status who have arrived after December 2020; it will be contingent on bilateral arrangements with the country they came from. As, Maddy put it,
“The Elections Bill has taken every opportunity to make it harder to have our voices heard.”
So much for simplifying the system and increasing suffrage.
- To reduce the powers and independence of the Electoral Commission.
The Clause 12 proposal is probably the most serious assault on democracy as power would be transferred not to Parliament but to Government Ministers. It would, as Naomi Smith put it,
“… give ministers an iron grip over the independent elections watchdog allowing them to use it as a tool against their opponents or making sure they got a free pass on any wrongdoing.”
This would make a complete mockery of accountability and the ability to run free and fair elections.
Fleur Anderson, Labour MP for Putney, who had served on the Elections Bill committee, said there was no need for the bill. Not just because of the exorbitant costs, estimated at £120 million, but because,
“I felt angry every day about what the government is doing to attack our democracy.”
The outrage felt by all speakers was palpable with former Shadow Chancellor John Mc Donnell citing this as
“… the first step along Trump’s path of the suppression of voters”
and Gina Miller, now leader of the True & Fair Party, pointed in the direction of Number 10 as she said,
“We’re all here because there’s a tyrant in that house.”
Strong words indeed, with more from Liberal Democrat Councillor and London Assembly Member Hina Bokhari who declared our political system to be broken.
As I have already mentioned, the platform of speakers was diverse, including Trade Unionist Matt Dykes, Green Party spokesperson and London Assembly Member Zack Polanski, Women’s Equality Party co-founder Catherine Mayer and Director of Liberty Martha Spurrier. So when Richard Tice, formerly of the Brexit Party and now leading Reform UK, hopped onto the stage and opened his speech with, “You may not have expected to see me here”, the woman behind me muttered, “Too bloody true!”. But he was singing from broadly the same hymnbook as the others in his demands for “a fair electoral system where every vote matters”, though I did see him glance down at his phone when John Mc Donnell said, in his reference to the ‘barbaric’ Nationality and Borders Bill, “asylum seekers are welcome here; not to be demonised.”
This was, as Mc Donnell put it, just one of a series of bills “they’re hurtling through parliament at the moment”. ‘Proto-fascism’ he called it and reminded us, as did many of the speakers that one of those bills, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (Policing Bill), would “prevent us from turning up in demonstrations like this and make that noise to express our views.”
And make a noise we did! With Make Votes Matter Co-CEO Klina Jordan, leading the “What do we want?” chants, the square was filled with cheers, jeers (though not at any of the speakers), calls for “real democracy” and “equal votes now”. Journalist Tim Walker tweeted with a picture, “Parliament Square today; this is not a country remotely at ease with itself”, and he’s correct. There is huge disquiet, yet, this was a good protest in that it was loud, had a focus but was essentially respectful. We were standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’ across the political spectrum and there was a purpose.
Action could be taken before the bill is discussed in the House of Lords at its second reading on 23 February and we were encouraged to lobby the peers before they debate it. Lobbying proved to be successful with the Policing Bill, which had been roundly defeated in the upper chamber. Although the ‘ping-ponging’ usually results in a win for the Government, certain amendments to the Policing Bill would require further acts of legislation to become law. There is hope that the Lords will defeat the Elections Bill, which could put additional obstacles in the way of the Government’s plan to ram the bills through and shut democracy down.
So, it’s reasonable to say that the 5 February 2022 protest marked the ‘Best of Times’ for democracy.
On 8 February there was another protest outside the Houses of Parliament where an angry crowd accosted Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. He was heckled, called “traitor” and had to be bundled into a police car for his own safety. Allegedly, the crowd, comprising anti-vaxxers, had assembled to protest coronavirus restrictions, yet the insults hurled at Keir Starmer had nothing to do with their supposed grievances. He was also labelled a “paedophile”, a reference to the false allegation made by Boris Johnson regarding Keir Starmer’s ‘failure’ to prosecute Jimmy Savile. In the words of former Attorney General and MP Dominic Grieve, it was
“… a disgraceful episode and it’s part of a downward spiral of behaviour in our politics and I’m afraid it’s been fermented and encouraged by the Prime Minister”.
The ‘Worst of Times’ for democracy.
As a 21st Century Dickens might have observed,
“Wisdom & Foolishness; Belief & Incredulity; Light & Darkness; Hope & Despair; Heaven & Hell”.
Just tick the box for 2022, too.