Citizening and the Elections Bill

The Elections Bill has sailed through its third reading, and of course the standout section 1 contains a new requirement to produce photographic ID before you get to vote in person.

This bit of legislation is probably the most Trumpian to date. It invents a problem as a way to legitimize voter suppression, and in the Commons usual suspect Steve Baker invented the usual nonsense in justification for what is clearly an act of vandalism on our democratic fabric.

The legislation is clearly a large threat to Labour’s and other opposition parties’ election chances, given the potential for the effective disenfranchisement of large number of people, with the majority of those in disadvantaged groups; the Electoral Commission reports that “4% of those people currently eligible to vote say they don’t have any of the existing photo ID which may be required….and…..the proportion of people without existing ID is higher among certain, more disadvantaged groups including the unemployed (11%) and those who rent from a local authority (13%) or housing association (12%), as well as disabled people (8%).

The legislation is also deeply insulting and hurtful to those affected, in a way which could further loosen civic ties among people already facing structural discrimination; why should people effectively denied the most basic right of citizenship in this way be then expected to conform to the responsibilities and norms that are seen to go with that citizenship?

Another way to summarize this, using the terminology popularized by American activist writer Baratunde Thurston, is that the Johnson regime is actively seeking to ‘decitizen’ people.

Well, not exactly the terminology used by Baratunde Thurston. His ‘How to Citizen’ initiative, of course, employs this verbal form as part of a positive framing of what is possible to achieve when citizens come together to do more than simply enjoy the fruits of their citizenship.

And the reason I employ the verbal form too is because, if we really want to resist the Johnson regime’s poisonous anti-democracy effectively, then we need to think about active citizening too.

2. How to Citizen

But how exactly might be go about this active citizening in relation to this new legislation?

The most obvious thing to do is, largely following the American model of vote registration drives, is to start up voter ID application drives to ensure that the number of people disenfranchised in minimized. There’s a lot to be said for that, and in places like Georgia the initial focus on retaining the right to vote does appear to have led to some wider political engagement.

But the downside is that it accepts the framing the Johnson regime is trying to impose. It acknowledges the legitimacy of the need to produce photo ID, and challenges individuals to meet the new requirement.

And just as in the US, where Republican legislatures are now upping the ante by making it ever harder to vote, so here we may see ever more onerous requirements imposed (new photos, payment schedules or, as Steve Baker has already demanded, polling clerks trained in voter harassment. Working to drive up voter entitlement in this way is better than nothing, but it also concedes the thin end of the wedge.

Fortunately, there is another option.

It comes in the form of the funkily titled Sustainable Communities 2007 Act (Amendment) Act 2010 which, while now largely forgotten (not totally forgotten, given that I’ve used it), empowers local authorities (including parish and town councils) to submit formal proposals to central government seeking the devolution of powers in cases where that that local authority can evidence that such devolution is in the interests of community sustainability as well as local support for the proposed change.

A programme of action using the opportunities for a Militant Democracy 3.0' (pace Paul Mason) afforded by the Sustainable Communities Act might look like something like this.

A small coordinating group, perhaps with a small amount of funding from one ot two radically minded Trust (e.g. Amiel, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Joseph Rowntree Reform) would work, initially in sympathetic local authority areas, to raise awareness of the potential of the Act, and help to draft formal proposals to government for the devolution to local level the power to decide their own rules on how voters access ballot papers in polling stations. The core argument would be the ‘citizening’ one: that fostering access to the ballot box is vital to overall community sustainability. As an obvious consequence of fostering access, needless restrictions like photographic ID would be rejected.

The process of pulling together Sustainable Communities Act proposals at local level would be as important as the outcome. The process would itself be an act of citizening, because as the campaign grows, so does a communal commitment not just to protecting voting rights, but also to widening engagement in civil society; making sure that everyone’s vote is protected becomes just a first step.

In sympathetic local authority areas, it’s possible that councils will simply go with the flow and submit their own proposals (which need to be appopriate to local circumstances while coordinating with other councils to maximize publicity. Of course there will be risk averse Labour councils unwilling to stick their head above the parapet, and much here will depend on the quality of the campaign messaging, which needs to dispel baseless fears of voter fraud but via a positive framing of citizen engagement.

With non-sympathetic councils (i.e. Tory ones), then a more ‘robust’ approach may be needed. This might involve the use of another obscure legal mechanism (though not that obscure, given that I’ve used it) that allows for an element of ‘punching up’.

This is the power set out in Schedule 12, para. 18 of the Local Government Act 1972 allowing a small number of people to impose upon a borough council the legal duty to hold a local poll, though only in parished areas, although in other circumstances trying to engineer a referendum on voting ID at local authority level under section 116 of the Local Government Act 2003 may be more effective. Heh you could even use the former to pressure for the latter, though obviously there’s a risk of looking vexatious if it gets too complicated.

The point, though, is it is the element of punching up via legal means that does, from my direct experience, enthuse people towards the kind of rebellious civic activism we now need.

And in this light, even what gainsayers to the proposed campaign may raise as downsides start to look like upsides.

The most obvious of these ‘downsides’ is that the government will simply reject the Sustainable Communities Act proposals submitted by councils out of hand, arguing perhaps that they reflect the opposite of the will of parliament. But, it’s not quite as simple as that because, uniquely under English law [1], the Sustainable Communities Act process has built into it a forms of appeals process which, after any rejection, requires the government to try to come to agreement with councils if the proposals are resubmitted by the ‘selector’ (current the Local Government Association).

This does two things. First, it pushes the process on towards a general election, and creates a greater incentive for opposition parties to include in their manifestos a commitment to repealing the voter ID sections of the current bill. Second, and related, it allows more time for debate at local and national level about what the government is up to and why.

In turn, this raises the question of current public opinion about the government’s stance, and by extension about the initial popularity of a citizen campaign to localize voter ID process and thus safeguard effective universal franchise.

On one reading, this might be cause for concern. Because the new voter ID requirements will largely target the already social marginalized, there’s not been much opinion polling about it, but the Electoral Commission has highlighted, in its 2021 ‘opinion tracker’, the fact that 66% of the public “say a requirement to show ID at polling stations would make them more confident in the security of the voting system.”

This would be a cause for worry, and a suggestion that a public campaign against voter ID will be doomed to failure, if it wasn’t also clear that this is both a pretty leading question. Indeed, dig a little deeper into the survey and you soon find that, when asked directly about electoral fraud, just 20% of people think it’s a problem, down from 39% the year before.

3. Rights and Voice

The opportunity presents itself, then, to ‘citizen’ our way towards wider recognition of the lies that the current regime is trying to peddle for its own decitizening, fear-mongering purposes, in a way which potentially lead to something bigger and more valuable than a simple voter Id registration drive.

And it could not be more timely. It comes at a time when ‘progressives’ are still reeling not just from the Brexit vote in 2016, when the capacity of the political lie to damage our democratic fabric really became clear, but — perhaps more pertinently here — at the abject failure of the supposed mass campaign to make Brexit less damaging by ensuring continuity of the UK’s place in the single market (and with that freedom of movement).

While here is not the place to go over the details of the range of well-funded but elite-led and misjudged campaigns, one thing that does stand our is that, by and large, they were about (or allowed themselves to be portrayed) as the defence of existing rights to the advantages of citizenship, as actively enjoyed by a minority of citizens.

That is, the anti- and softer Brexit campaigns were, in the terms Liberal Democrat activist and citizenship thinker Jon Alexander uses, they were acts of consumerism, not of active citizenship.

There’s an opportunity to do something different now. There’s an opporunity to launch a campaign not aimed at defending the rights of those who have them already, but at promoting the equality of voice of those who don’t.

As such, there’s also an opportunity to draw together, in a civic campaign, actvivsts from liberal and socialist traditions, not just because the campaign is about constitutional rather than policy issues, but because it speaks to an older liberal tradition of intrinsic rights [2],of the type described by RH Tawney and which many Liberals are now keen to recapture and to a Dusselian-Habermasian socialist tradition in which the principle of communication unfettered by the systems of capitalism themselves necessitate material change.

Engaging respectively cross-party, and as equal actors in a surge of citizening, might be just the thing that’s needed if we are really to move towards a much vaunted progressive coalition, though clearly this will have to run parallel with the development of procedures that resolve the great Prisoners’ Dilemma all ‘progressive’ parties face in the UK.

But more important than any progress towards formal politics of coaltion, this could be about moving on, via real world activism, from a static conception of (consumer) rights, to an active conception of what it really is to provide for, and keep on ensuring, equality of citizen voice.

Notes

[1] There is no such legal provision in Scotland, though there may be similar ones I’m not aware of. My proposals here are necessarily England focused.

[2] This is not to suggest that early liberalism actually delivered, or even sought to deliver on universal rights, as Domenico Losurdo’s counter-history makes painfully clear.

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Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.

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Paul Cotterill

Paul Cotterill

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.

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