rs21 member Kate Bradley writes on the suppression, repression and oppression that increasingly characterise British ‘democracy’.

TUC Right to Strike rally at Parliament Square, London 22nd May 2023. Credit: Steve Eason/Flickr

Shortly after the Tories’ major defeat in the local elections earlier this month, Jacob Rees-Mogg, darling of the Tory right, said that voter ID had backfired on the Tories: ‘Parties that try and gerrymander end up finding that their clever scheme comes back to bite them, as dare I say we found by insisting on voter ID for elections.’

‘Gerrymander’ is a nice, archaic-sounding word, but let us call the requirement for voter ID what it is: voter suppression. At its most visible, voters are turned away at the door of the polling station. According to the Guardian, a group of election observers called Democracy Volunteers carried out snapshot surveys of 118 councils on 4 May. ‘The group said observers saw 1.2% of those attending polling stations turned away because they lacked the relevant ID, or were judged to not have it. Of those turned away, 53% were identified by observers as appearing to be “non-white”.’ 1.2% is far higher than estimates for voter fraud ever were, suggesting large numbers of legitimate voters were turned away.

This racism is, unfortunately, unsurprising. People from ethnic minorities are less likely to have official photo ID, so voter ID laws place an unfair burden on black and minority ethnic communities to get ID before polling day – an attempt to disenfranchise voters generally more likely to vote Labour. The voter ID law was made appealing to right-wingers using racist rhetoric, with newspapers conjuring spectres of Muslim husbands voting on behalf of their wives. The idea that ‘foreigners’ voting in British elections warps democracy is widespread and is used to justify the tiered system which refuses many migrants a vote even after they have been in Britain for decades.

There will also be many who did not turn up to vote because they didn’t have any photo ID – in May 2021, this number was estimated to be 2 million people, and only 10,000 people had applied for the government-issued ID by January 2023.

When the options on offer are uninspiring and the system is rigged so that it’s essentially a one or two horse race in most places, it’s unsurprising that so few people felt inspired to obtain ID, even if they could. Voter ID is not just a way of actively discriminating against working-class voters, including many from racialised communities; it’s also a soft deterrent, a behaviouralist approach to shrinking the electorate.

Though voter ID may not have had the intended effect of bolstering the Tories at the last local elections, the general election may be a different matter. Even with turnout falling steadily over the last century, general elections tend to draw a higher turnout, and attract less enfranchised voters. It is likely that more people without ID will be affected in next year’s election. With several hung parliaments in recent elections, these numbers could be pivotal for keeping the Tories in power.

Britain is not Tory

One antidote to depression about living in a Tory-led country is to remember that, in hard numerical terms, the Tories won their huge majority in 2019 by garnering the votes of only 20.9% of the population. How can a fifth of the population voting for one party lead to this powerful majority government?

In part, it’s because the British state is not, and has never been, democratic in the way it pretends. The first-past-the-post system renders a huge proportion of votes effectively meaningless; constituency boundaries are subject to political fights to favour ruling parties, masked in the language of neutrality and fairness; many affected by government policies are consciously excluded from voting: children, prisoners, millions of migrants. In this context, parties are incentivised to compete for a few ‘swing’ votes from already enfranchised voters, leading to the political opportunism and cowardice of the Labour right, who tend to accept those conditions as a given.

Add the elite control of the media that delivers ideological content in the lead-up to elections (a nail in the coffin of the Corbyn project), the widespread and understandable political disillusionment that leads to dramatically falling voter turnouts, and the narrowing of political life through the shrinking of trade unions and other lay political groupings – and it’s clear that democracy, even as it’s envisioned by the liberal ruling class, doesn’t really exist.

Voting aside

Whilst we must fight to ensure that the Tories aren’t allowed to hollow out our electoral system even further, it’s important to remember that general elections aren’t actually the backbone of meaningful democracy. Casting a single vote once every five years can’t be said to deliver true participation in democratic life. We don’t get a vote on how our landlord acts, who our boss is or what they do to us at work, or even what policies are pursued locally or nationally – we only get a vote for individual MPs, based on loose commitments and manifestos that are often scrapped, changed or ignored once a government is in power.

With the Tories in control but with low legitimacy – currently led by a Prime Minister even Tory members didn’t vote for – the importance of extra-parliamentary action in politics can’t be overstated. As the Tories continue to shrink the electorate to hold onto power and reshape the state further in their interests, they must also put in place policies and laws to prevent those who aren’t being ‘heard’ through democratic channels from getting their message across and pushing for change in other ways – protest, strikes, disruption and resistance.The government is cracking down on protest through a range of measures. Over the last two years, successive Tory governments have passed the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Act and the Public Order Act, criminalising a vast range of peaceful political action that the Tories consider disruptive, and increasing police powers to surveil, repress and exercise discretion when policing both protesters and marginalised groups.

The Public Order Act took centre stage at the coronation events, when protesters from groups like Republic and Just Stop Oil – and even ‘innocent’ bystanders, to liberals’ horror – were pre-emptively arrested using new protest laws. These arrests were a little snapshot of what’s to come.

The new laws have been explained by groups like Liberty, Green and Black Cross and Justice, but in brief, some of the most disturbing new protest powers include:

New statutory criminal offences including ‘locking-on’, ‘tunnelling’ and ‘public nuisance’ to target noisy, disruptive protests (both Acts). This has knock-on effects: you can now be held by the police for conspiracy to commit public nuisance, for example. This was the provision under which the police claimed to have held Republic activists at the coronation.
Increased sentences for various protest crimes (PCSC Act). For example, if you’re found guilty of wilful obstruction of the highway, you can now be given up to 51 weeks in prison or an unlimited fine, or both. The previous sentence was a fine not exceeding £1,000.
Increased police powers to limit protests and public assemblies. Under the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act, police forces are allowed to place restrictions on protests they believe would otherwise constitute an existing offence of public nuisance, including imposing starting and finishing times and noise limits, and be able to consider actions by one individual as protests under provisions of the Act.
Suspicionless stop and search. The Public Order Act allows police to stop and search people without suspicion, extending 1994 powers to cover protest activity. The Act also creates a new criminal offence of intentional obstruction during a suspicion-less, protest-related stop and search. If convicted, you are punishable with up to one months’ imprisonment, a fine of up to £1000, or both.

In light of these changes, we are likely to see an upturn in numbers of political prisoners. We should be strengthening our networks of prisoner solidarity accordingly. This means building a more robust network of criminal defence lawyers, legal observers, arrestee support groups and anti-repression campaigners who can defend political arrestees, expose and challenge state overreach, and fight for the freedom of people convicted of protest crimes.

Some commentators hoped that the courts would find ways to scupper illiberal legislation, but the evidence so far suggests the judiciary is playing along. Judges are denying defendants the right to voice political defences in cases relating to the environment and Palestine, and sentencing people to prison for ‘contempt of court’ when they try to voice their political opinions in the courtroom (as seen here with an Insulate Britain activist). Long prison sentences are being imposed for the new crime of public nuisance, such as in the case of the two Just Stop Oil protesters jailed for over five years for a protest where they scaled Dartford Bridge. The judge in that case, Judge Collery KC, said: ‘You have to be punished for the chaos you caused and to deter others from copying you.’

For Marxists who see judges and the law very much as part of the state apparatus, this enthusiastic enforcement of draconian protest laws is not unexpected. In a system where Parliament is supreme, even the most authoritarian Acts of Parliament tend to be deferred to by judges, even in the rare cases when a judge is personally ideologically opposed to the Act. The judiciary and the House of Lords may occasionally be acting like the ‘reasonable voices’ in political discourse at the moment, but they’re weak allies. We can’t rely on them.

All out for basic rights

It’s not just voter suppression and anti-protest legislation that the Tories have been pushing through. Their whole legislative programme recently has been an effort to strip back basic rights and repress dissent. Anti-strike laws, such as the Minimum Service Levels Bill, aim to crush another powerful tool of working-class change and resistance. New laws undermining asylum seekers’ rights to seek asylum (e.g. the Illegal Migration Bill), and threats to remove protections in the Equality Act for trans people, are part of the same game. The government is swiftly and systematically destroying the rights on which ordinary people rely: to vote, to protest, to strike, to seek asylum, to seek legal recourse for harms done to them by powers in their life. They’re pushing for a system in which our safety and security can hang on an employer’s word, a landlord’s charity, a public authority’s whim, a policeman’s discretion, even more than they already do.

The Tories’ vision of the future isn’t a world I want to live in, and I’m sure you don’t either. So, in the face of authoritarian policies and repression, we can’t be deterred. We have to scale up our protests, increase our effectiveness, and broaden the movement fighting for change outside Parliament – including preparing to deal with the increased repression that’s to come.

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