It may have passed you by that last week was Welcome to Your Vote week, encouraging sixth-formers to get excited about a vote denied to them. “We want to show young people that politics and democracy impacts everything around them,” says the Electoral Commission. Yes, indeed it does. But don’t tell them that even when they turn 18, only a few hundred thousand votes in marginal seats will swing the next election – because the system is a fix, where a postcode lottery decides the few who own the golden votes under our warped first-past-the-post electoral system.
When young people do go to vote, this government tries to deter them by demanding photo ID at the polling station. What kind? Oh, not the kind young voters have. Young people’s travel passes have been deliberately excluded, while old people’s bus passes are just fine. The usually reticent chair of the Electoral Commission, John Pullinger, former chief statistician of immense civil service heft, protests loudly these days. His commission’s key recommendations were ignored in the Elections Act, including this “very, very tight” list of permissible IDs, that can “disenfranchise particular people”, he told the Financial Times.
The commission’s survey of recent non-voters in England found that photo ID requirements had deterred 4% of voters. That’s significant. The old are the only age group with a majority Tory vote, and virtually no young people are Tory voters. So why has the government rejected travel pass IDs for the young? When asked this, Pullinger said: “I think readers will need to draw their own judgment about that.” Prosecutions for “personation” at a voting station were nonexistent at the last general election. Jacob Rees-Mogg offered an untypical service to the nation when he confessed he had voted for this “gerrymander”, but that it had come back to bite his own party: “We found the people who didn’t have ID were elderly and they by and large voted Conservative.”
Another possible attempt at gerrymandering may be an own goal. The Tories last month gave 2.2 million expats who have lived abroad for more than 15 years the right to vote: that representation without taxation was whizzed through parliament on a statutory instrument in December. As the party hires staff to register expats in key marginals and solicit donations previously barred, it may be blundering. Researchers from Sussex University found the Tories’ share of overseas votes fell by two-thirds after the harm Brexit did to many of them.
If there was an ounce of sincerity in its feigned concern about voting fraud, the government would have heeded the warnings of the Association of Electoral Administrators that it will be near impossible to check the identity of long-gone expats, or penalise them for voter fraud. The Tories bodge everything, but their gerrymandering intention stinks. In Pullinger’s devastating judgment, this government has opened itself up to the charge that its Elections Act is designed to benefit the Tory party. No surprise that Britain has just plunged to its lowest ever place in international rankings for perceptions of corruption in Transparency International’s index, sinking from the eighth cleanest in 2012 to 18th place due to breaches of the ministerial code and opaque political donations.
Ah yes, dirty donations. Britain’s “mother of democracy” reputation ratchets down as Pullinger points to the “troubling anomaly” that political parties are not subject to the same anti-money-laundering regulations as businesses and charities. Among many loopholes, shadowy dining clubs, known as “unincorporated associations”, donated £14m last year without needing to divulge who they were, Politico revealed.
Foreign donations can be disguised through businesses registered at Companies House. With cash for honours too ordinary for comment, no wonder Pullinger warns of the “significantly downward” trend of public confidence in political finance. Liz Truss was allowed to appoint a peer for every economy-crashing 1.5 days she spent in No 10. Labour can delay the fiendishly difficult democratisation of the Lords, but still reform its worst anomalies: sack the 91 hereditary peers and 26 bishops, and make parties – and crossbenchers – cut their own numbers by 50%. They know their own dross, the non-attenders who claim expenses. It’s easy to clean up peerage appointments and bar large donors.
The commission has come out fighting in protest at its lost independence: under the Elections Act, the UK no longer has an impartial elections invigilator free of the ruling party. The government has just issued the commission with its “strategy and policy” marching orders, which, Pullinger says, “is incompatible with the idea of an independent body”. The speaker’s committee declares the strategy and policy orders as “not fit for purpose and inconsistent with the commission’s role as an independent regulator”; the Lords has challenged these instructions and the government’s right to issue them.
This power grab was sparked when the commission fell foul of Brexiters by prosecuting Vote Leave for financial rule-breaking and bungling a case against Darren Grimes. Now the act has abolished the commission’s power to prosecute, rendering it toothless, hated alongside any authority able to restrain the Tories – judges, courts, regulators or human rights laws.
This matters. There is nothing to stop the government of the day directing the commission on who it investigates or stops investigating for electoral fraud or corruption. Remember, it’s the commission that drafts the wording of referendums: will it now be the government instead?
Shamelessly, the Elections Act deliberately avoids finding the estimated 8 million voters who aren’t correctly registered at their current address. How easy it would be to ensure landlords, utility companies and all officialdom added clients to the electoral register. But no need to ask why it is not done: the people less likely to be registered at their current address are the poor and the young, who move frequently. Meanwhile, the old stay put. David Cameron barred colleges and families from registering young people. Changing boundaries to match registered voters, not the actual population, unfairly gains the Tories 22 seats, according to polling guru Peter Kellner.
AI and deep fakes threaten frightening distortions of election campaigns. But on its record of electoral crookedness, who would trust this government to intervene strongly if it thought it was doing it a favour? It gerrymandered the voting system for mayors and police and crime commissioners, because under the alternative vote, too few people cast Tories as their second choice. But frankly, as things stand, it looks as if no amount of gerrymandering will save its bacon.