Ahead of a debate in the House of Commons next week, the government today faces calls to scrap large sections of the Elections Bill in an open letter signed by a broad coalition of civil society organisations.
In a joint letter, campaign group CEOs, charity leaders, and union bosses have warned of the danger that the Elections Bill poses to free and fair elections in the UK, and the damaging impact that the ‘power grab’ will have on participation at election time. There are concerns that the Bill will help to consolidate influence for a minority of vested interests and rig future elections in the government’s favour.
Due for its second reading in parliament this week, the letter highlights how under the auspices of protecting elections, the Bill will actually undermine democracy in the UK by:
Giving government control over the day-to-day running of the currently independent Electoral Commission
Allowing the Minister for the Cabinet Office to unilaterally define campaigning and ban campaigners and donors
Increasing administrative burdens and potential risk for smaller organisations, deterring them from taking part in elections
Creating barriers to voting for minority groups and disabled people
The letter, which can be read below, brands the Bill an ‘attack on the UK’s proud democratic tradition’ and describes it as being the ‘axis in a concerted effort to stifle opposition, deter participation in elections and establish an uneven playing field for future elections’. It concludes by calling on the government to ‘change course’ by removing the offending sections of the Bill.
Naomi Smith, CEO of Best for Britain, lead signatory of the letter, said:
“Despite the spin, it’s clear that the true aim of this Bill is to silence critics, cripple opposition and rig future elections for those already in government.
“This power grab smacks of a government that is afraid of educating the electorate and afraid of accountability. Any MP who believes that the U.K. should be a beacon of democracy to the world, should join us in calling for the removal of all provisions in this Bill that threaten free and fair elections in the UK.”
TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady said:
“No matter who you vote for, you should feel confident that UK elections are free and fair.
"But the Elections Bill is an assault on unions’ right to speak out on behalf of working people at election time. And it gives far too much power to ministers to tilt the electoral playing field in the direction of the Conservative party and their wealthy donors.
"Ministers should drop these proposals now.”
Heather Fisken, Head of Policy and Research at Inclusion Scotland, a Disabled People's Organisation, said:
"Evidence suggests that over 1million disabled people in the UK do not have photographic ID and as they could face more challenges applying for one, the Elections Bill could directly discriminate against their right to vote.
"We want to see barriers to voting dismantled, not new ones erected."
The letter in full
We write to express severe concern about the Elections Bill published on the 5th July 2021 which, under the guise of protecting our democracy, instead threatens to undermine free and fair elections in the UK. Clauses in the 158-page bill would unpick the infrastructure of our democracy, will deter people from participating in elections, and will ensure the government holds an unfair advantage in future elections.
The Bill bestows unprecedented and unchecked power to government over elections in two ways; first, by empowering ministers to set both the agenda and purview of the currently independent Electoral Commission, and second, by enabling the Minister for the Cabinet Office to unilaterally change which organisations and campaign activities are permitted a year before any election in the UK. At a stroke, the Minister could ban whole sections of civil society, including unions and charities, from engaging in elections either by campaigning or donating.
Giving control of the Electoral Commission to ministers opens it to abuse by the government, turning it into a tool which they could use disproportionately against opposition campaigners while ensuring their own side receives less scrutiny. It could also be used to deter organised opposition before an election is even announced with ministers able to instruct the Commission to retroactively criminalise groups and individuals for action undertaken up to one year before an election which the Minister for the Cabinet Office defines as 'campaigning’. For example, activities undertaken before an election is announced is currently not considered electoral activity by the Commission, but a minister could change that guidance so a group demonstrating for higher wages for NHS workers could be criminalised if a snap election is called six months later and the Minister for the Cabinet Office decides their action constituted campaigning.
Taken alongside the government's intention to replace the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, allowing the Prime Minister to dissolve parliament unilaterally, the government could criminalise opposition campaigners en masse. With uncertainty over changing rules and the dates of future elections, campaigners would risk committing electoral offences leading many to avoid campaigning altogether. Therefore, this power grab acts as an effective deterrent to organised opposition to the government and severely undermines our democracy.
Other clauses within the Bill are also concerning for the likely impact they would have in deterring people from voting and campaigning. Under this bill, joint-campaigning rules will be extended to include political parties, fundamentally changing how non-political groups engage with parties and candidates at election time. Such changes could have a chilling effect on specialist groups organising events like hustings, just when their input into elections matters most to voters and risks silencing the independent voices of trade unions, charities, small businesses and community groups. And when you consider that the winners of the last election spent £16million, lowering the spending threshold for groups to register from £20,000 to £10,000 during an election is also likely aimed at deterring smaller organisations and community groups who may fear they will run afoul of changing election rules.
Similarly, the introduction of Voter ID creates barriers to different groups of people, especially members of minority groups. This includes but is not limited to disabled people, homeless people, survivors of domestic violence, and people wearing face coverings as part of their religious freedom. Again, the justification for the move is farcical when only two people were convicted of stealing another’s vote during the last election.
Taken in isolation, reasonable arguments can be made for clauses within this bill. Indeed, we welcome making polling stations more accessible and allowing overseas citizens to vote in elections. However, when viewed alongside the Policing Bill which criminalises protest, replacing the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, changes to the Official Secrets Act and to Judicial Reviews, it is clear that the Elections Bill is the axis in a concerted effort to stifle opposition, deter participation in elections and establish an uneven playing field for future elections, favouring those in power.
When the body regulating our democracy is no longer independent, when civil society is silenced through fear of prosecution and when vulnerable groups are marginalised from democratic participation, we can no longer be confident that our elections are fair.
This Bill represents an attack on the UK’s proud democratic tradition and on some of our most fundamental rights. We, the undersigned, call on the government to consider its consequences which may outlive any government and ask you to change course by fully removing Clause 23 of the Bill, removing any provisions which impacts the independence of the Electoral Commission and by discarding any further provisions as outlined above which are likely to act as deterrents to voting and campaigning.
Naomi Smith, CEO
Best for Britain
Frances O’Grady, General Secretary
Trades Union Congress (TUC)
Nick Lowles, CEO
HOPE not hate
Kirsty McNeill, Executive Director of Policy, Advocacy & Campaigns
Save the Children
Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretaries
National Education Union (NEU)
Mick Whelan, Chair
Labour Unions (National TULO)
Ben Stewart, Head of News, Investigations and Special Projects
Tom Bruffato, Director
March for Change
Sam Grant, Head of Policy and Campaigns
Iain Smith, National and Local Policy Manager