The corruption of the American right is seen at its most decadent in the disenfranchisement of black and poor citizens and the refusal to accept defeat when voter suppression fails. If you think it could not happen here, consider the fate of Britain’s “independent” Electoral Commission that once kept politics clean.
The Conservatives are in the process of either neutering or abolishing it. They are bringing voter suppression to the UK and making it clear to anyone who takes notice that the right, with its overwhelming financial advantages, wants minimal controls of big money and the political propaganda it buys. Few take notice. The corruption of politics is the strangest thing: an unnoticed outrage. It’s not that it’s an official secret. It’s just that few seem to care. One day, we’ll look back at today’s obscure manoeuvres in esoteric committees and ask why more did not protest when protesting might have made a difference.
The secret history of the rigging of the system begins with Michael Gove showing a suspiciously keen interest in the workings of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. Despite Covid-19 raging, the economy shrinking and the Brexit debacle looming, Gove finds the time to attend what ought to be the dullest deliberations in Westminster. A healthy democracy seeks compromise and does not allow one party to set the rules. The Speaker’s Committee is not a healthy body. It has a Conservative majority that can override all other parties.
The Conservative leadership has filled it with Tory MPs with grudges against electoral regulation. Alongside Gove is Craig Mackinlay, who was cleared of knowingly falsifying election expenses in 2019. His campaign manager received a nine-month suspended sentence for dishonestly preparing election returns, however, and the experience left the MP for South Thanet full of self-pitying resentment. “I can’t even begin to relate, in words, the indignity of being in the dock, behind glass in court 7 of Southwark crown court,” he lamented.
Karl McCartney, the Conservative MP for Lincoln, joins Gove and Mackinlay. The Crown Prosecution Service cleared him of electoral impropriety in 2017. He, too, couldn’t take investigation on the chin and complained he was a victim of an Electoral Commission “witch hunt”. The Speaker’s Committee meets in secret as if it were a cabal in a dictatorship rather than a regulatory body for a democracy. After its last meeting on 30 September, the Conservatives decided secrets weren’t secret when it suited their interests. They leaked to their friends on the Telegraph that they had denied Sir John Holmes a second term as Electoral Commission chairman.
They had a case against Holmes. He broke public service impartiality when he said he “regret[ted] the result” of the 2016 Brexit referendum. But the Tory reaction is out of all proportion to the offence. Grateful Conservatives have used Holmes’s blunder as an excuse to restrict democracy. They announced in another leak to the Telegraph (which receives so many leaks it is in danger of becoming a Tory urinal) that they were “touting” Timothy Straker QC to succeed Holmes. The leaking of Straker’s name had a strategic purpose. As they have done by announcing their favoured candidate for BBC chair, the Conservatives were signalling to better qualified men and women that it was a waste of time applying for a job that may well be sewn up. Like voter suppression, candidate suppression is becoming a favourite rightwing tactic.
To keep the commission in line while they wait to put their man in charge, the Conservatives are battering it with threats. Amanda Milling, co-chair of the Tory party, said the government wanted either abolition or wholesale change. She showed how blase she was about political corruption when she said Companies House could monitor donations to parties instead. Companies House is a library, not a police force. Every crooked business and money-laundering racket can use its shell companies because it has neither the power nor the ability to stop fraud. Asking Companies House to police corruption in Westminster is like asking the British Library to investigate murders in the Euston Road.
A staple tactic of the American right is to make needless demands that voters produce photographic ID. Impersonating voters is a virtually unknown crime because a bent politician would need to persuade thousands of accomplices to flood polling stations to be sure of victory. It is, however, an excellent way to suppress turnout. Instead of being appalled, British Conservatives are inspired by the prospect of disenfranchising poor and ethnic minority citizens who are likely to vote Labour. They are pushing through with demands that UK voters produce ID, even though in 2019 there were only 34 allegations of “personation” fraud at the polling station, 0.000058% of the 58m votes cast in all elections. At the last count, 3.5 million citizens did not have access to photo ID or a passport or driving licence and an estimated 1.3 million people did not even have a bank account. With fewer of the poor able to vote, Tories can lobby the Boundary Commission to give the poorer regions of Britain fewer seats.
The intimidated Electoral Commission justified going along with voter suppression by maintaining that demanding ID had a “positive impact on people’s perception of the security of the polling station process”. Ah “perception”, what crimes are committed in thy name. It’s not that there is real fraud. Only that the Conservatives have created the “perception” of fraud and because of that false perception the franchise must be denied.
We ought to be remaking election law to protect against foreign interference and plutocrats funding online campaigns. In the 2019 election, 88 groups spent £2,711,452 on propaganda on Facebook without voters having the right to know where the money came from. The Tories, it appears, are happy with that. They will make it easier for dark money to influence politics and harder for poor people to vote. I long ago gave up trying to understand why some scandals make the news “agenda” while others are ignored. But still it’s worth asking: why isn’t this a story?
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist