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Originally published in the Independent
Every time the Tories are in government, our democracy takes a battering. In the 1980s, Thatcher hacked away at our trade unions and abolished the Greater London Council. Boris Johnson tried to prorogue parliament to get his disaster of a Brexit through, bringing hundreds of thousands out onto the streets for the “Stop The Coup” protests, and seeing his cynical strategy overturned by the Supreme Court in the process.
But with the Brexit drama going on and on, it is easy to miss what else the Tories are doing to harm our democracy.
The government has announced that it will bring forward plans for compulsory photo ID at elections. While there is no evidence that there is a significant issue with voter fraud, there is plenty of evidence that making ID a compulsory part of voting strips people of their democratic rights. Recent limited trials of voter ID across 10 councils resulted in more than 700 people being denied a vote.
It’s pretty clear who is affected by these measures – young people, ethnic minorities and low income voters. A 2016 Electoral Commission report highlighted that 11 million citizens do not have a passport or driving license. In 2017, the government’s own figures stated that while 76 per cent of white people possess a driving license, only 52 per cent of black people do.
Voter suppression is, of course, not new. In the US, requiring voters to produce photo ID in order to vote is just part of a much wider and more open system of discrimination against poor and ethnic minority voters. Like measures to purge infrequent voters from the roles or prove citizenship, these measures claim to be about curing a problem – in-person voter fraud – which simply does not exist on any scale.
In reality, they are an echo of openly racist laws that continued into the 1960s in the south, which required voters to prove their literacy, and so disenfranchised black voters. Unsurprisingly, all of the recent voter ID laws have been introduced by Republicans.
Introducing the same measures here in the UK will not be about trying to make the ballot box safer, it is a blatant attempt to rig the next general election. The rationale is pretty simple: the Tories rely on voters who are older, whiter and richer. Fewer than 40 per cent of people who hold a driving licence voted Labour in 2017, whereas almost half voted Tory. And almost 60 per cent of people who don’t hold a driving licence voted Labour.
The government wants to force through a race-to-the-bottom Brexit, which will hit working class, young and Bame people hardest. Their plans for voter ID effectively amount to voter suppression among these groups. This is nothing less than an all-out assault on the marginalised sections of society – their living standards, their communities, and their democratic rights as well.
It is not a surprise that the Tories are heading down this path. Just as Boris Johnson is aping Donald Trump with his nationalist rhetoric around Brexit, he is also copying the Republican Party’s plans to win elections by lowering turnout among disadvantaged groups. Clearly the Tories are learning from their right-wing allies across the pond in how to whip up division and disenfranchise people.
Labour and other opposition parties must now unite with civil society to campaign against these deeply worrying plans. We need to remove Boris Johnson from No 10 and get a Labour government to lead a renewed democratisation of our society, our politics, and our institutions.