UK Prime Ministwr Boris Johnson. (Photo by Tolga Akmen - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson’s final act as prime minister will be to rig the next election, it seems. Or, at least, to try to. As openDemocracy reported last week, the last kick of his boot as he walks out of the Downing Street door will be to the balls of the Electoral Commission.
Already limping from a lack of funding and ludicrously low maximum fines, the regulator charged with defending the UK’s democratic process – which had a word or two to say about both Johnson’s 2019 election campaign and the pro-Brexit movement in which he played a prominent role – will be told that it should charge fines only as a last resort.
Instead, if a party takes a cricket bat to the laws of democracy (rules intended to stop the rich from buying elections), the umpire will now have to politely “request improvements” before taking matters further.
Of course, every political party has been on the wrong side of these laws at some point. But, structurally, there is one party that wins by trussing up the regulator – one party that consistently breaks laws and has the cash to pour into elections. You know which one.
Without any real accountability to spending limits, Johnson’s – soon to be Liz Truss’s – party, and the oligarchs for whom it acts, will be able to drown the country in adverts in order to shape the agenda of the next election.
While the 2019 vote saw a flurry of online astroturfing by Tory-aligned PR outfits smearing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, the next will probably see a flourishing industry of dark money-funded mercenaries of spin with a “rules are for fools” attitude, turning the vote into a referendum on whatever issue Conservative strategists think gives them the best chance of winning. Or, at least, it will if these changes pass.
And this is only one way in which Johnson is fiddling with elections.
Changing voting rules
Ahead of the 2005 general election, I was signed up to vote by my university, alongside thousands of other students in residences. Before the 2010 election, it needed only one of the six people in my house-share to get us all registered. But in 2014, the government abolished household registration. Now, each person has to register themselves.
It’s a measure seemingly designed to purge people who move more regularly – usually younger renters – from the electoral roll.
The last-minute surges in young people registering to vote ahead of the 2016 EU referendum and the 2017 and 2019 general elections happened only because of vast efforts by activists. But this tied up progressive campaigners in form-filling and bureaucratic messages, while the right could focus their appeals to older voters on policy.
Now, Johnson has added another deterrent.
Laws introduced in May require voters to take ID to the polling booth, a measure copy-pasted from US Republican drives to reduce turnout among poorer people, younger people and people of colour, who are less likely to have documents such as passports and driving licences. These are groups which are already less likely to vote, but when they do, they’re least likely to vote Tory.
The new law also changes the franchise. British citizens living abroad used to be able to vote in their former constituency for 15 years after they left. That limit is now gone. Hordes of Tory pensioners, sunning themselves in Spain, who haven’t lived in the UK for two decades, can now vote here.
And, as former electoral commissioner David Howarth has warned, the government is pushing the commission to put effort into signing up people who haven’t lived in the country for years – which means that attempts to sign up young and precariously housed renters risk losing focus.
Meanwhile, EU citizens used to be able to vote in local elections in England. While those who already had that right before Brexit got “done” have retained it, anyone newly moving here won’t get it – unless the two governments have agreed on a reciprocal deal. In wards with large student or migrant-worker populations, this will be a significant boost to the Tories.
Add to that the 2020 Parliamentary Constituencies Act, which redrew Britain’s electoral map in a way likely to benefit the Conservatives, and the rumours that Johnson plans to cram even more Tories into the Lords on his way out the door, and we have a series of reforms that tilt the scales for the Tories.
That’s before we talk about the softer questions of who gets to shape the political agenda.
Limiting the right to protest
With the 2014 Lobbying Act, the Tory/Lib Dem coalition led by David Cameron went a long way towards gagging its critics, placing new restrictions on charities and trade unions in an attempt to shunt them out of the political debate. For many, less formal, more direct-action methods became the only door onto the national stage. Now, these are being slammed shut too.
The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act came into effect in June, severely limiting protest rights for people in England and Wales. Police can now set strict conditions for demonstrations and, if these are broken, imprison anyone who encouraged people to go to the demo for up to 51 weeks. Even if they didn’t know about the conditions.
If you “wilfully obstruct a highway” – which, of course, any decent-sized demo does – you can be jailed for up to a year. If you are found to have caused “serious annoyance” or “serious inconvenience” – perhaps through the sort of direct action of which there is a long and healthy tradition in the UK – you can now go to prison for up to 10 years.
According to the government, the new act was justified, in part, by Black Lives Matter protests. In other words, Johnson met that moment of international introspection about institutionalised police racism by giving the police yet more power over those who protest against them.
If you think about the social movements that have helped shift political agendas in recent years – Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, UK Uncut, Occupy, BLM – many would have been severely hampered by these new laws.
The Conservative government (with its pet journalists) is now freer to set the political agenda in the country, with little capacity for citizens to push their concerns onto the national stage. The bravest and most successful organisers of the next round of protests risk serious jail time.
Meanwhile, the 2021 Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Act expanded police surveillance powers – all those post-Snowden concerns for liberty, gone – and extended the maximum sentence for membership of, or even “supporting”, a proscribed organisation to 14 years. The Judicial Review and Courts Act has made it harder to hold the government to account through the legal system. The Overseas Operations Act was condemned by the UN for making it harder to hold British soldiers to account if they commit war crimes.
Attacking journalists and academics
The risks for journalists have escalated too, with a string of reporters being arrested of late. Channel 4, one of the few corners of the UK’s broadcast media with a consistent record of criticising the government, is to be sold off, leaving it owned by – and beholden to – the wealthy. The BBC is under threat.
Academic freedoms are also under the cosh. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will strip universities and students’ unions of their right to define who should be invited to speak in their buildings, instead giving a government-appointed stooge the right to sanction universities that they think have failed to meet their “free speech duties”. Because nothing screams “freedom of speech” like a government goon threatening universities.
Perhaps most importantly, trust in democracy and the state has collapsed under Johnson, poisoning the soil for anyone who promises to use the state to do anything good.
Britain’s democracy, with its neo-feudal voting system, its House of Lords, its unchecked executive powers and royal prerogatives, has always been a compromise between the ruling class and those they rule, rather than a proper system of government by the people.
But in just three years, Boris Johnson has gone a long way to win back power for that ruling class, to undermine the capacity of ordinary citizens to be heard, to slant the pitch in his team’s favour.
And there’s more.
Under Johnson’s leadership, the Conservative Party has faced a tsunami of allegations of Islamophobia, including from some of its own MPs. Truss, his successor, received no admonishment despite international attention for complaints about her stereotyping of Jews.
Before the 2019 election, the prime minister purged the small remaining liberal wing of his party, replacing them with a generation of right-wing culture warriors. Organising themselves into the Common Sense Group, they have angrily picked on pretty much every marginalised minority the tabloids wound them up about. A wave of transphobia has created a more toxic atmosphere for LGBTIQ+ people now than I can remember in my entire adult life.
Johnson has left the UK in economic tatters, advancing a programme of asset stripping and offshoring that has enriched only the richest.
But it’s also important to remember that, for all the talk about protecting free speech from the “woke” brigade, his brief premiership has been a relentless assault on our freedoms, an authoritarian’s race to strip the people of this country of what political power we have to organise against the ruling class.
The damage he’s done is enormous.
This is an edited version of an article first published on the openDemocracy website.
Adam Ramsay, a member of the Scottish Green Party, is openDemocracy’s special correspondent.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.