Saturday, December 2

Johnson’s cynicism has poisoned our political system. The antidote is electoral reform | Polly Toynbee

Today is the last time you will go to the polls before the government’s shameful and shameless new election bill becomes law. It was squeezed through parliament late at night last week in the final “wash-up” of bad bills before the end of the session.

The bill’s Trumpish voter suppression is designed to deter poor and young people from voting. Its passing also makes these the last elections to be monitored and scrutinized by a genuinely independent Electoral Commission. This habitually timid outfit tried to stand up for itself: “The independence of the Electoral Commission is vital to the functioning of a healthy democracy,” it said. But, as of now, Boris Johnson and his allies will set their own terms for the commission, including its scrutiny of finance.

Every voter will need a photo ID from now on, so 7.5% of voters, or 3.5 million peoplewithout a driving license or a passport will have to be determined enough to trek to their local council office, have their photo taken and fill out an application with a counter-signature. It’s worth noting that the DVLA and the Passport Office are in crisis: just try booking an urgent passport slot. Anyone looking at our voting patterns would worry about too few people turning out, not people voting twice. The risk of “personation” – cheating on identity – is minuscule: in 2017 there was one conviction, in 2018 none at all. In a grossly unfair and undemocratic electoral system, the probity and honesty of its operation is the one aspect to be proud of.

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The Tory-led public administration and constitutional affairs committee produced a devastating condemnation of the bill. They estimated 2.3% of voters would be deterred from voting, or 1.1 million people, who would probably be those on low incomes, from ethnic minorities and with disabilities. They warned that too much arbitrary discretion would be left to polling station staff to accept or reject ID, causing queues and rows.

If you doubt this is a conspiracy to stop non-Tories voting, look at the only ID that is acceptable beyond passports and driving licences: pensioners will be allowed to use the older person’s bus pass, Oyster 60+ or ​​Senior 60+ SmartPass – while young people will be barred from using their railcards. The government rejected Lord Willetts’ amendment 86 trying to include a wide range of documents for all ages. Older people are the main users of postal votes – which won’t require ID. All this is surely not unconnected with the Tories’ 47-point lead among the over-65s, and Labour’s 43-point lead among under 25s ace of 2019.

The Spectator has kindly assembled no fewer than 11 writings and sayings by Johnson excoriating ID cards, starting with, “I praise the idea on principle. I never want to be commanded, by any emanation of the British state, to produce evidence of my identity… I will take that card out of my wallet and physically eat it.” But now ID cards serve his only remaining political purpose: to get re-elected.

The bill’s other abomination concerns the relatively new mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections: it sweeps away the present second-preference system in favor of the unfairest of all, the antique first past the post (FPTP). why? Because Tories are more likely to win under FPTP. There are more anti-Tory progressive voters, who transfer their second preferences to another progressive party, but rarely to a Tory.

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As Neal Lawson, who advocates a progressive alliance, wrote eloquently this week, a majority-progressive vote is usually disastrously divided. Today, in 82% of elections there will be at least two progressive candidates splitting their vote, standing against just one Conservative, according to Jon Narcross of the Electoral Reform Society. Proportional representation (PR) would, to borrow a phrase, “level up” votes, so they don’t pile up wasted. PR now gets strong public support, according to YouGovwith 44% in favour, and only 27% for first past the post.

The last week, with seven front pages of the Mail and others piling in, trying to make Keir Starmer’s beer and curry on the campaign trail as bad as Downing Street’s 12 parties is just another grim reminder of the monstrous heft of the rightwing press, used unscrupulously to save its multimillionaire owners from the perils of Labor in power.

Labour, if it becomes the biggest party at the next general election, must lead the way to electoral reform. Labor is highly unlikely to win alone, so this time the Liberal Democrats and all the other parties must demand PR immediately, as its first act or refuse any cooperation on anything else. There is no need for a referendum, just do it. Referendums are toxic politics – and the Tories can hardly complain when they have gerrymandered, prorogued and suppressed opposing votes, their mendacious press claque distorting any fair voice, with total disregard for what is now a broken constitution. Johnson has killed off Peter Hennessy’s theory of a “good chaps” constitution, one in which practitioners hold dear not just the rules themselves but also their spirit.

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So what should progressive “good chaps”, be they male or female, do at the close of a Johnson era? That much is clear. They should feel free to introduce a voting system that will stop any corrupt party with a minority of votes ever governing alone again with dictatorial powers.

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