On the side of democracy

Tory voter suppression versus democracy – Labour needs to take a leap of faith, says Mary Southcott

You only have to look at their 2017 and 2019 manifestos and the 2021 Queen’s Speech to know how much the current first-past-the-post is the Conservative voting system. It makes voter suppression easy and inevitable. The next time Labour is in office this needs to change, not for expediency but to prevent the whole of politics drifting into irrelevance.  

After the Chartists and Suffragettes struggled to widen the franchise, you might expect people to want their vote to count. Voter suppression is official Tory policy. They only want meaningful votes for their voters. Labour needs to address all those who are taken for granted and bypassed in seats where the same party always wins. They are the many, but the few decide current general elections.   

New boundaries are not based on population. People who are not registered to vote do not count. A decade ago, Mark Harper, the Tory-led coalition’s Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, confessed to a meeting in Number 10 he was only interested in low hanging fruit – basically the settled communities, owner-occupiers; in short, Tory voters – in terms of registration.  

Who is disenfranchised? Young and other people who move frequently, in private multi-occupation, looking for jobs – what we call churn, which contributes to low turnout; people who may be registered but have moved before the following election. Others find filling in details difficult, on paper or computer. Millions don’t appear on registers, the building blocks of the Tory bid to create equal constituencies.    

Registration itself is voter suppression. Boundaries create the constituencies which decide where the next general election is fought and won: target marginals. The fight to change boundaries will be naked party interest although their evidence will be about bus stops, schools and parishes. What matters will cause voter suppression just as in the United States where redistricting and gerrymandering are two sides of the same coin – not a good look for democracy.    

On the spurious grounds of massive electoral fraud, the requirement for voter ID – foreshadowed in Theresa May’s 2017 manifesto, ironically to create “a flourishing and secure democracy” – will disenfranchise another few million people who have neither a passport nor driving licence. At the same time, they will legislate for votes for life for British overseas electors they reckon will vote for them.   

Priti Patel is determined to return to first-past-the-post voting everywhere in England where the current government’s writ runs. They have their sights on mayoral and police and crime commission supplementary vote elections that currently maximise the support for the person elected. Dropping SV will not change Labour first vote victories in Liverpool and Manchester, but would affect many others where Labour’s candidates get transfers from other anti-Tory voters.    

It is interesting how many Labour politicians support voting reform after having fought elections which make them reach out beyond their core supporters. Andy Burnham joins the ranks of Labour electoral reformers like Tracy Brabin, Mark Drakeford, Anas Sarwar, Jamie Driscoll and (we believe) Kim Leadbeater in Batley and Spen.

In their 2019 manifesto the Government promised to get rid of fixed-term parliament, tick; equal parliament boundaries, tick, ironically “making sure that every vote counts the same – a cornerstone of democracy”; to continue to support the first-past-the-post system of voting, “as it allows voters to kick out politicians who don’t deliver”, tick; to protect the integrity of our democracy by introducing identification to vote at polling stations; making it easier for British expats to vote and getting rid of the arbitrary 15-year limit on their voting rights; maintain the voting age at 18, and setting up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission to examine how our democracy operates, as if they are interested in it operating. Tories are stuck in the past, whereas 16- and 17-year-old voters had no problem voting in the Scottish independence referendum and the 2021 Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd elections.  

The Tories know what is in their own interest, but does Labour? Labour should prevent or promise to reverse most of what the Tories want implemented in order for them to win the next general election. The Tories are not playing games. They are serious about retaining power. Just by offering to introduce a voting system to make votes count, to prevent the move back to first-past-the-post in mayoral and other elections fought by supplementary vote, to allow young people to vote and introduce citizenship education and training for teachers, to ensure that all British people living abroad can vote and not just Tories, Labour can be on the side of democracy. This change of political culture will bring people back into politics rather than suppressing voting and, more important, boost engagement.   

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