A dark day for democracy

While the anti-independence media in Scotland, which is to say most of it, remain fixated on ferries, the Conservatives are getting on with the dismantling of Britain’s already fragile democracy. The collection of customs, practices, and laws which collectively amount to what passes for a British constitution are already hopelessly inadequate for the task of putting limits on the power of the government and holding the powerful to account, a task which is vital in order to guard against a possible descent into authoritarianism and corruption, tendencies which are already far too evident with this Conservative administration. As an illustration of just how useless the Westminster system is at safeguarding democracy and ensuring the highest standards of behaviour in public office, We currently have a Prime Minister who has repeatedly lied to Parliament, the public, and the cabinet, and who has been found to have broken the law on at least two occasions, yet he remains in office and we must rely on the Conservative party deciding to unseat him for its own party political advantage.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, and it is extremely serious. 56 MPs, including three cabinet ministers, are currently being investigated for allegations of sexual harassment. That is almost 10% of the entire cohort of MPs in Parliament and speaks of a deeply dysfunctional working culture in Westminster. Just a couple of days ago Conservative MP Neil Parish resigned after being seen to have been watching porn on his mobile phone in the Commons chamber and in a committee meeting. At first Parish refused to resign, claiming that he had opened the file by accident when looking for information about tractors. He’d just got mixed up about the sort of tugging he wanted. At this rate BBC Parliament will soon take over from Babe Station as the UK’s leading broadcaster of blatantly sexual behaviour.

At first the Conservatives tried to excuse this litany of appalling conduct by claiming that MPs work hard, work long hours, and spend a lot of time in Westminster’s several bars, as though drinking on the job was somehow normal and acceptable in any other field of work, and that it somehow excused the rampant sexism of so many MPs.

This weekend, the SNP MP for Airdrie and Shotts, Anum Qaisar, has revealed that she has been warned to stay away from certain male MPs because they have a reputation for predatory behaviour. The Sunday Times has reported that a minister has been alleged to be heard having “noisy sex” in his parliamentary office, a Tory MP has been accused of sending a picture of his genitals to a female colleague , and another Conservative MP has been given repeated warnings for his use of prostitutes.

Anum Qaisar pointed out that all too often the responsibility for dealing with the inappropriate behaviour of male colleagues is put on women, with women being told to be ‘careful’ about what they wear or to have to take care to avoid being left alone with certain men rather than men being held accountable when they behave inappropriately with their female colleagues. She added that there is a culture in Westminster where the men accused of these actions only quit when they are threatened with being thrown out of Parliament. This is exactly what happened with Neil Parish, who at first tried to stay in office and only resigned as an MP when the outrage that his behaviour generated looked as though it was going to lead to him being facing the humiliation of being dragged out by a tractor.

However this sorry situation forms the backdrop for the Conservative evisceration of the Electoral Commission, stripping it of its status as an independent body and putting it under the control of a cabinet minister, currently Michael Gove. Gove, who lies as frequently as Boris Johnson but even more glibly, will now have the power to determine the remit of the Electoral Commission and to decide what counts as legitimate campaigning. In February, before the Conservatives’ Elections Bill had received its final reading, the commission wrote a public letter to Michael Gove, saying that the bill’s provisions were “inconsistent with the role that an independent electoral commission plays in a healthy democracy”, adding that the independence of the Electoral Commission is is fundamental to maintaining confidence and legitimacy in our electoral system.”

The bill gives Gove the power to criminalise groups and individuals for actions undertaken up to a year before an election that he retroactively deems to be campaigning. Former Electoral Commissioner David Howarth has described this draconian measure as “something straight out of Putin’s playbook”. Other critics of the new legislation have pointed out that it gives British Government ministers the ability to to shape how electoral law is applied to them and their political competitors, and gives the governing party a significant and unfair advantage.

The Conservatives have already introduced legislation which significantly restricts the right of protest in England and Wales, this new legislation destroys the independence of an institution with the power to put limits on the Conservatives and to hold them to account and puts it firmly under the control of the party. Additionally it puts significant obstacles in the way of exercising the right to vote, and will make it mandatory for voters to show photographic ID at the polling booth. The Conservative government says the bill will protect the “integrity” of elections and prevent voter fraud. There is however no evidence that impersonation is a serious problem at ballot stations. Figures show that between 2015 and 2019, there were only 88 allegations of in-person voter fraud, out of a total of 153 million votes cast. That included votes in three general elections during the four-year period. The Conservative elections bill will introduce a serious obstacle in the way of casting a vote in order to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist.

The effect of this bill, and no doubt its real intention, for all the mealy mouthed and pious excuses of the mendacious Conservatives, will be to make it harder for certain demographic groups which tend not to support the Conservatives to cast a vote. Young people and members of ethnic minorities are more likely to lack the kind of photographic ID demanded by the new legislation. The Tories have clearly taken a leaf out of the voter suppression book of the US Republicans. The Electoral Reform Society has warned that the ID measures, which will cost £20 million per election to implement, could disenfranchise the 3.5 million people in the UK who lack the ID required. According to the British Government’s own figures, as many as one in ten people do not have an up to date, recognisable photo ID.

Kyle Taylor,the director of the campaign group Fair Vote UK, said the UK Government had essentially “voted to officially end the independence of the Electoral Commission” and that the new powers mean ministers “can effectively rig election rules in their favour”. He added : “This is how countries slide into authoritarianism,first you take control of the institutions, then you rig them in your favour and ban noisy protest so people can’t fight back. It’s a dark day for democracy.”

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