Our democracy is being threatened by the Tory Government’s Elections Bill.

UK democracy has been dealt a heavy blow after the Tories rammed their Elections Bill through the House of Commons after only a couple of hours of debate. However, with their backbenchers in a rebellious mood and a string of unexpected defeats in the House of Lords, there’s still all to play for.

The Tories want to make it harder to vote, mark their own homework by giving more power over election campaigning and the Electoral Commission to Ministers, and introduce new restrictions that risk silencing the trade unions that have a century-long link to the Labour Party. We must fight to preserve hard-won democratic rights for future generations and to stop the Conservatives from rigging the rules to suit themselves. Former Electoral Commissioner David Howarth described the Governments’ Election Bill as a “Serious threat to the fairness of all future elections in Britain”.

Let’s go through the three issues one by one.

They’re making it harder to vote

The Bill introduces a requirement to show photo ID at the polling station – making it harder for many people to vote. The introduction of Voter ID creates barriers to different groups of people, especially minority groups. Cabinet Office research found that elderly, disabled people and unemployed people were less likely to hold a photo ID.

Since 2014, there have been just three convictions and nine cautions issued after allegations of voter fraud. On the other hand, according to the Cabinet Office, 2 million voters currently lack the ID they’d need to vote.

Despite the various crises engulfing Boris Johnson’s administration, they remain laser-focused, some might say obsessed, with constitutional changes. From stifling opposition during elections to curtailing the ability to protest make no mistake, this isn’t about making our democracy fairer – there isn’t a problem here that needs to be fixed – this is Trump-style voter suppression tactics, that will reduce turnout and make our democracy less representative.

They’re marking their own homework by giving more power over election campaigning and the Electoral Commission to Ministers.

Ministers are getting new rights to direct the work of the Electoral Commission. They’ll be able to ask the Commission to change the guidance on Election campaigning to include a wider variety of activities – and, they may even be able to change the rules retrospectively, as when an election is called it’s all the campaigning that has taken place in the year before it that counts.

How can unions, NGOs and civil society organisations take part in public life when they know that, should an election be called, all their campaigning could count towards election spend limits, with rules and guidelines that could be changed by Ministers after the fact? This is designed to stop organisations campaigning because they are frightened of falling foul of the law – a ‘chilling effect’.

The Bill goes further and gives Ministers the power to add organisations to the list of those who qualify to register as ‘third party campaigners’. Perhaps more egregiously, it gives them the power to remove groups or amend the way they are described. This could allow Government to ban organisations it objects to, like Black Lives Matter or Extinction Rebellion, by creating conditions for inclusion such as not using disruptive protest methods.

Ministerial interference seems all but inevitable considering the recent court decision in favour of the protestors who toppled the statue of Edward Colston. Ministers could even ban unions from being allowed to campaign in elections. Can it be right, in a democracy, that the Government pick and choose who is allowed to campaign? It’s not exactly levelling the playing field.

The Elections Bill is a blatant power grab that will erode our democracy and our right to free expression. The Tories are pushing through new laws designed to make the UK less democratic by giving Ministers unprecedented and unchecked powers to stifle their political opponents and deter participation. You might be entitled to wonder if the Tories are holding a grudge against the Electoral Commission? It’s clear that a robust, independent Commission has never been more important. To stretch a metaphor, there can be no level playing field when one side can direct the referee.

They’re introducing new restrictions that risk silencing Labour-affiliated trade unions

The right of Trade Unions to campaign independently is under threat. The Election Bill also includes new changes to campaigning by so-called ‘third parties’ like trade unions, whose long-standing relationship with the Labour Party has been in the sights of the Conservatives for years. The historic constitutional link between affiliated unions and the Labour Party, and the right of unions to an independent voice is under threat – yet again. The Bill attempts to mute the voice of trade unions and is an attack on freedom of expression and association, which cannot be allowed to stand.

The Election Bill curtails the ability of trade unions to campaign in their own right on the issues and priorities that matter to their members, by bringing in new rules on ‘joint campaigning’ with political Parties. At the moment, if trade unions run a joint campaign in the run-up to an election, then each union must record the total expenditure of the joint campaign against their own individual spending limits. Even though the money has only been spent once, it has to be declared multiple times.

The Bill now extends this rule to joint campaigning between a political Party and non-party campaigners. This means that when the Labour Party campaigns with trade unions, the total cost of the campaign would have to be declared by both the Party and participating unions. This risks eating up unions’ own campaign limits before they have even begun – especially if the definition of ‘joint campaigning’ is widened by Ministers to redefine Labour Party activity as joint activity.

Affiliated unions don’t just campaign for Labour at election time – they campaign politically on industrial and wider issues, and they campaign against the far right. Affiliated unions represent 3 million working people, and their families – they are entitled to an independent political voice, separate from the Labour Party.

These new rules are completely unnecessary – trade union campaigning is the cleanest money in politics. Trade Unions are already regulated by the Electoral Commission and the Certification Officer, and unions decide how to campaign democratically. This isn’t about fairness – it’s about silencing the Government’s critics whilst they are busy stuffing the House of Lords full of their pals.

First, we had the Downing Street refurb scandal, then the Owen Patterson coverup which resulted in a government by-election defeat, then the controversy over the numerous Christmas parties while the rest of the country observed coronavirus regulations. The stench of sleaze and corruption emanating from Boris Johnson’s government grows week by week even John Major a former Conservative Prime Minister called Boris Johnson’s administration ‘politically corrupt’.

Boris Johnson’s has been investigated for breaking the rules in every role he’s been elected to. We need a government that values honesty and Johnson is not capable of leading that sort of government. We know it, he knows it and increasingly, the British people know it. Trade unions provide a strong independent check within our political system.

This Elections Bill is an assault on the UK’s democratic tradition and a brazen attack on the ability of trade unions to speak out on behalf of the millions of working people they represent. The Bill tilts the electoral playing field in the direction of the Conservative party and their wealthy donors. It must be stopped. The UK has always been proud of its democratic traditions. If you believe we should aspire to be a beacon of democracy, join our campaign for fair elections and to stop the Elections Bill