Three changes to the law last week mean democracy in the UK is now hanging by a thread, says Don Flynn
Democracy puts in an appearance on the British scene something like the fossil bones of a dinosaur that had its heyday way back in the Jurassic period. You can recognise the outline of a once-living entity, but the lack of animation makes it obvious that it belongs to an ever more distant past.
The sense that something that at least approximates to the rule of the people has slipped a little further from view this past week, with the news that Parliament has passed three more pieces of legislation that allow executive power to trump a citizenship mobilised to promote its own interests.
To start off with, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act became law last week, bestowing on the police sweeping powers allowing them to crack down on demonstrations which disrupt the normal business of life. Under the act’s provisions, it will become a criminal offence to cause “serious distress, serious annoyance or serious inconvenience” without “reasonable excuse”. Even if the police condescendingly allow a demo to go ahead, they will have the power to impose restrictions on marches whose “noise” could cause “serious disruption” to a nearby organisation.
Veterans of protest movements have been quick to point out that the whole purpose of a demonstration is to rupture the normalcy of the daily routine in order to make the visual, and audial, point that a danger looms or an injustice remains unaddressed, and people should be pulled up, even if for just a moment, to have a serious think about it.
The disruption of these actions tends to increase with the sense of urgency that is attached to the issue. When the crowd’s noise rises to an especially high level, it is invariably because it has arrived at the site of an organisation – like a bank, a notoriously bad employer, or Parliament itself – which needs to have its work disrupted in order to make the point that it is doing wrong.
The need for these anti-democratic police powers at this time comes at exactly the point when public awareness of the harm being done by government policies across a whole range of issues is rising to new heights. In recent years, Parliament has seemed a feeble place to register these anxieties, with the government party rallying in tribal manner around its leader, and the official opposition having more of an eye to focus groups and public opinion returns than the real moods of people in the streets. No sign of a Green New Deal worthy of the name has yet appeared in the thousands of pages of Hansard debates, so, unsurprisingly, we now have an Extinction Rebellion underway to press the issue. Expect the heads of militant campaigners for insulating homes and opposing road infrastructure to be the first displayed as trophies of the new police powers.
Following on from this measure, a new Elections Act received Royal Assent later last week, with the controversial requirement that photo ID be produced when casting a ballot at elections for public office. The government’s claim that the measure is needed to counter electoral fraud has not convinced many people in view of the fact incidences of this behaviour are very rare. Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut is the usual way of summing up and dismissing the government’s case for the reform.
Opponents of the measure see the danger that a photo ID requirement to exercise the right to vote will have a chilling effect on segments of the population who currently have a marginal engagement with mainstream political activity, often because of disillusionment that it can be made to work in their interests. The groups they have in mind – young people, ethnic minorities, poor people – are also often among the sections of the people who are least likely to have photo ID documents, such as passports or driving licences, readily to hand. However, for a government committed to conserving the status quo, and not too disturbed by inequality or the plight of the poor, the prospect of keeping people who might favour radical reforms to the social order away from polling stations is likely to have obvious attractions. Giving disproportionate weight to the votes of people in older age groups whose security is padded by property or other assets will be one of the consequences of the photo ID requirement.
The Elections Act also brings about changes to voting systems for mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections in England. These will be changed to the first-past-the-post system, which will allow victory to go to the candidate who wins a higher number of votes than others contesting the election, even when, as is usually the case, this is a minority of all the votes cast. The Conservative Party’s trenchant opposition to any form of proportionality in voting systems is at the heart of this change. It further buttresses its advantage in being the sole large party representing the centre and right of politics, uniting that roughly 40 percent of voters and allowing them to stand firm against the 60 percent whose votes straggle several parties on the centre-left.
Also tucked away in the Elections Act are clauses which effectively end the independence of the Electoral Commission. Set up in 2001, the commission has until now functioned as an independent agency regulating party and election finance and setting standards on how elections should be run. In its founding principles, it was envisioned as being independent from the work of government, intending to counter concerns that the party in office might favour the rigging of rules that make the system work to its own advantage. The new act abolishes this independence and allows ministers to step in and ensure that their view on the way elections should be run take precedence.
Why is all this happening now? It comes at a moment when the stagnation of the UK economy – which kicked in with the financial crisis of 2008 and has placed British capitalism on life support ever since – is entering a new phase of turmoil, with an energy crisis fusing with a collapse in the standard of living for millions of people across the country. In the past, periods of intensified public hardship have increased support for radical change which has not been contained by a political system which privileges the conservation of the status quo. The more militant moods abroad in the population have been expressed in movements that favour direct democracy, expressed by action on the streets and in workplaces. How handy it will be to have spanking new police powers that equip the authorities to go in hard and diminish the scope for collective protest.
With these steps being taken, Britain is falling in line with other right-wing-dominated countries – exemplified by Hungary and Poland in Europe, and with Turkey, India and the Philippines providing other examples – which have nominally multi-party systems and regular elections, but where the rules overwhelmingly result in, and even positively require, victory for right-wing, conservative factions. In each of these cases, the slide towards authoritarianism has been gradual, taking place over a number of years and involving incremental changes which have squeezed critical viewpoints out from public spaces and underscored the idea that the rule of plutocrats and their favoured parties is the only option possible.
Democracy in the UK is hanging on by a thread that is much thinner than most people think. If the democratic left doesn’t come up with a message soon that shakes up the political system, we will see more and more of the system we think of democracy crumble from fossil state to outright dust.