How Boris Johnson Rigged British Politics for the Tories

John here. With the Conservative Party soon to announce Liz Truss as the new Prime Minister, much of the public discussion about Boris Johnson naturally focuses on Covid-19 and Ukraine. This article examines the various ways the government of Boris Johnson has undermined democracy in the UK. This is a central part of his legacy as PM and will continue to help the Tory Party as the scandals of parties in lockdown lose their sting.

By Adam Ramsay, openDemocracy’s special correspondent. Originally published at openDemocracy

Boris Johnson’s final act as prime minister will be to rig the next election, it seems. Or, at least, to try to. As openDemocracy reported last week, the last kick of his boot as he walks out of the Downing Street door will be to the balls of the Electoral Commission.

Already limping from a lack of funding and ludicrously low maximum fines, the regulator charged with defending the UK’s democratic process – which had a word or two to say about both Johnson’s 2019 election campaign and the pro-Brexit movement in which he played a prominent role – will be told that it should charge fines only as a last resort.

Instead, if a party takes a cricket bat to the laws of our democracy (rules intended to stop the rich from buying elections), the umpire will now have to politely ‘request improvements’ before taking matters further.

Of course, every political party has been on the wrong side of these laws at some point. But, structurally, there is one party that wins by trussing up the regulator – one party that consistently breaks laws and has cash to pour into elections. You know which one.

Without any real accountability to spending limits, Johnson’s – soon to be Liz Truss’s – party, and the oligarchs for whom it acts, will be able to drown the country in adverts in order to shape the agenda of the next election.

While the 2019 vote saw a flurry of online astroturfing by Tory-aligned PR outfits smearing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, the next will likely see a flourishing industry of dark money-funded mercenaries of spin with a ‘rules are for fools’ attitude, turning the vote into a referendum on whatever issue Conservative strategists think gives them the best chance of winning. Or, at least, it will if these changes pass.

And this is only one way in which Johnson is fiddling elections.

Changing Voting Rules

Ahead of the 2005 general election, I was signed up to vote by my university, alongside thousands of other students in halls. Before the 2010 election, it needed only one of the six people in my house-share to get us all registered. But in 2014, the government abolished household registration. Now, each person has to register themselves.

It’s a measure seemingly designed to purge people who move more regularly – usually younger renters – from the electoral roll.

The last-minute surges in young people registering to vote ahead of the 2016 EU referendum and the 2017 and 2019 general elections happened only because of vast efforts by activists. But this tied up progressive campaigners in form-filling and bureaucratic messages, while the Right could focus their appeals to older voters on policy.

Now, Johnson has added another deterrent.

Laws introduced in May require voters to take ID to the polling booth, a measure copy-pasted from US Republican drives to reduce turnout among poorer people, younger people and people of colour, who are less likely to have documents such as passports and driving licences. These are groups which are already less likely to vote, but when they do, they’re least likely to vote Tory.

The new law also changes the franchise. British citizens living abroad used to be able to vote in their former constituency for 15 years after they left. That limit is now gone. Hordes of Tory pensioners, sunning themselves in Spain, who haven’t lived in the UK for two decades, can now vote here.

And, as former electoral commissioner David Howarth warned, the government is pushing the Commission to put effort into signing up people who haven’t lived in the country for years – which means that attempts to sign up young and precariously housed renters risk losing focus.

Meanwhile, EU citizens used to be able to vote in local elections in England. While those who already had that right before Brexit got ‘done’ have retained it, anyone newly moving here won’t get it – unless the two governments have agreed a reciprocal deal. In wards with large student or migrant worker populations, this will be a significant boost to the Tories.

Add to that the 2020 Parliamentary Constituencies Act, which redrew Britain’s electoral map in a way likely to benefit the Conservatives, and the rumours that Johnson plans to cram even more Tories into the Lords on his way out the door, and we have a series of reforms that tilt the scales for the Tories.

And that’s before we talk about the softer questions of who gets to shape the political agenda.

Limiting the Right to Protest

With the 2014 Lobbying Act, the Tory/Lib Dem coalition led by David Cameron went a long way towards gagging its critics, placing new restrictions on charities and trade unions in an attempt to shunt them out of political debate. For many, less formal, more direct-action methods became the only door onto the national stage. Now, these are being slammed shut too.

The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act came into effect in June, severely limiting protest rights for people in England and Wales. Police can now set strict conditions for demonstrations and, if these are broken, imprison anyone who encouraged people to go to the demo for up to 51 weeks. Even if they didn’t know about the conditions.

If you ‘wilfully obstruct a highway’ – which, of course, any decent-sized demo does – you can be jailed for up to a year. If you are found to have caused ‘serious annoyance’ or ‘serious inconvenience’ – perhaps through the sort of direct action of which there is a long and healthy tradition in the UK – you can now go to prison for up to ten years.

According to the government, the new act was justified, in part, by Black Lives Matter protests. In other words, Johnson met that moment of international introspection about institutionalised police racism by giving the police yet more power over those who protest against them.

If you think about the social movements that have helped shift political agendas in recent years – Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, UK Uncut, Occupy, BLM – many would have been severely hampered by these new laws.

The Conservative government (with its pet journalists) is now freer to set the political agenda in the country, with little capacity for citizens to push their concerns on to the national stage. The bravest and most successful organisers of the next round of protests risk serious jail time.

Meanwhile, the 2021 Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Act expanded police surveillance powers – all those post-Snowden concerns for liberty, gone – and extended the maximum sentence for membership of, or even “supporting”, a proscribed organisation to 14 years. The Judicial Review and Courts Act has made it harder to hold the government to account through the legal system. The Overseas Operations Act was condemned by the UN for making it harder to hold British soldiers to account if they commit war crimes.

Attacking Journalists and Academics

The risks for journalists have escalated too, with a string of reporters being arrested of late. Channel 4, one of the few corners of the UK’s broadcast media with a consistent record of criticising the government, is to be sold off, leaving it owned by – and beholden to – the wealthy. The BBC is under threat.

Academic freedoms are also under the cosh. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will strip universities and students’ unions of their right to define who should be invited to speak in their buildings, instead giving a government-appointed stooge the right to sanction universities that they think have failed to meet their ‘free speech duties’. Because nothing screams ‘freedom of speech’ like a government goon threatening universities.

Perhaps most importantly, trust in democracy and the state has collapsed under Johnson, poisoning the soil for anyone who promises to use the state to do anything good.

Britain’s democracy, with its neo-feudal voting system, its House of Lords, its unchecked executive powers and royal prerogatives, has always been a compromise between the ruling class and those they rule, rather than a proper system of government by the people.

But in just three years, Boris Johnson has gone a long way to win back power for that ruling class, to undermine the capacity of ordinary citizens to be heard, to slant the pitch in his team’s favour.

And there’s more.

Under Johnson’s leadership, the Conservative Party has faced a tsunami of allegations of Islamophobia, including from some of its own MPs. Truss, his presumed successor, received no admonishment despite international attention for complaints about her stereotyping of Jews.

Before the 2019 election, the prime minister purged the small remaining liberal wing of his party, replacing them with a generation of right-wing culture warriors. Organising themselves into the Common Sense Group, they have angrily picked on pretty much every marginalised minority the tabloids wound them up about. A wave of transphobia has created a more toxic atmosphere for LGBTIQ+ people now than I can remember in my entire adult life.

Johnson has left the UK in economic tatters, advancing a programme of asset stripping and offshoring that has enriched only the richest.

But it’s also important to remember that, for all the talk about protecting free speech from the ‘woke’ brigade, his brief premiership has been a relentless assault on our freedoms, an authoritarian’s race to strip the people of this country of what political power we have to organise against the ruling class.

The damage he’s done is enormous.

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  1. Patrick Donnelly

    The real problem is the first past the post system when there are other parties splitting the vote. It even means that covert support for the Liberals et al., makes it more certain that Tory scum rise to the top. Putting a crypto Tory into Labour also makes real changes impossible.

    Putting a tight lid on the english may not trn out too well if the oppressed have nothing to lose, except their poverty.

    3 hots and a cot will sound very welcome to millions, soon!

    Interesting times ahead!

  2. jackiebass63

    UK politics sounds a lot like USA politics. It is controlled by money and the party in power raises the most money. They use the power to make rules or laws designed to keep them in power. Voters share some blame because they fall for con jobs over and over.

  3. Ignacio

    IMO, this tries to be a critic to the system in its entirety and manages to loose the focus with too many things. Voting with an ID in hand is nothing that the UK has borrowed from the US: It is the normal in most European countries and guarantees votes are balloted by registered electorate. If students move from one place to the other for periods longer than three months they should register properly in their respective residence as this determines the necessities of the municipality and the services they have to apply and charge.

    So if the Tories engage in dirty games a decent left/labour should react and change their electoral approach but, instead, the left is engaged in buying neoliberal shit or dreaming about an alternate world and not wanting to do the exhausting task of convincing the electorates that they are the best option, analyse their tactics etc. Lazy they are and possibly lost in old fashioned rhetoric and discussions. Wonder how is it that traditional progressives are dissapearing from the electoral map around Europe. German SPD is next in queue after French PS self-destroyed herself.

    Tories and Labour are acting in concert to undermine the democracy: there aren’t true political alternatives. You cannot choose between a party that wants it all and a party that has no desire to be elected.

    1. Ignacio

      “French PS self destroyed herself”: This looks like bad construction. Should it be simply “destroyed herself”?

      1. Revenant

        Your instinct is correct, Ignacio. The French Partie Socialiste destroyed itself. Only people and gods (Atlas, Athena et al.) have male or female grammatical gender in English. Animals, objects, abstract concepts are all neuter – “it”.

        There are exceptions for:
        – countries, ships and personifications of ideals (Justice, Truth, Beauty etc), which are all traditionally female (but which are often treated as neuter in modern writing). Czechoslovakia dissolved herself into the Czech and Slovak Republics; the Titanic sundered herself on an iceberg….
        – for Death, Old Father Time, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Jealousy the green-eyed god and other personifications of evil etc. which are all male. :-)
        – animals, which are given non-neuter gender according to their sex (ie. cows she, bulls he) in fiction and description but tend to be neuter in formal reports, law etc.

    2. David

      I was going to say the same thing. Europeans would find it incredible that you can vote in an election in the UK with no identification. It’s one of the basic safeguards of a democracy. In France you need an electoral registration card and an identity document and your name is checked off a lost. I think there’s something deeply patronising and neocolonial about the idea that you could get together a bunch of Rumanian fruit-pickers, march them down to the local voting booth and tell them to vote Labour.

      And I agree about self-destruction (the correct construction is “the French PS destroyed itself” or, more figuratively “the French PS auto-destructed” which is probably what I would write.) This is just a long whine about how unfair life is, and one of what (I suspect) is one of the last outings for the idea that some miraculous coalition of minority pressure groups can lead Labour to victory. Ask the French PS how well the “Islamophobia” thing worked for them.

      1. jrkrideau

        In Canada, one automatically is registered in most cases. Description of the National Register of Electors

        I get a voter information card for an election telling me how to vote (i.e. by mail, advanced poll, on-the-day), and where and when to vote in person. Recently, one is expected to bring some kind of ID and proof you live in the riding (constituency) if you have lost the card . It can get more complicated than that at times but I was hospitalized during a Federal election a few years ago and Elections Canada sent staff through the hospital to solicit advanced votes for those of us who could not get to a poll.

      2. JohnA

        Also until a few years ago, the voting register in each constituency was compiled in October, and could not be changed or voter registrations added/deleted until the following October.

      3. Bristol_Brit

        Hey, guess what though. If you vote by post, you dont need to prove your ID. And who mostly votes by post..the over 65s. And which party do most of the over 65s vote? The Tories. Add the nonsensical decision to allow people who haven’t lived in the UK for 20 years the right to vote (what?), who of course normally vote…Tory. it’s pretty messed up.

      4. Joe Well

        But in many countries they bend over backwards to make sure everyone has a national ID. Otherwise it is just another way to limit voting to the hard-core voters and most settled elements of the population.

      5. Revenant

        Yes, this is a long bien-pensant whinge that cannot distinguish between state and party.

        Some things are bad, whoever is doing them:
        – restriction of the right to protest
        – increased surveillance
        – neutering of the electoral commission and the influence of money on the electoral (rather than political) process

        Some things are bad because the Tories are doing it to Labour and they don’t like it up ’em:
        – gerrymandering the constituency boundary changes
        – culture wars (but it takes two to tango…)

        Some things are just not as important as the author things they are, such as the right for non-citizens to vote in local elections and the absolute threat of perpetual Tory government this causes (rather, than, say, because Kier Starmer is a member of the Trilateral Commission and a man of the lizard people rather a man of the people and therefore Labour cannot get elected even when capitalism is foundering under its contradictions).

        On the imposition of ID cards on voting, sorry David, but I disagree with you. It is not the state’s right to tag us like sheep. It is enough that I register to vote (the step at which a check is make) and bring my electoral registration card to the polling booth and I am ticked off a list.

        The incidence of “personation” (pretending to be somebody you are not) in voting is so low as to be meaningless. The Electoral Commission’s own research has shown this. The resulting vote not going to overturn an election, for several reasons. First, if the real voter turns up, all hell breaks loss at the polling station and there will have to be an investigation. Second, the if the real voter does not show up, what is the harm? Turnout held up for a change! Just possibly, somebody voted twice or multiple times. But only in the most unlikely contests will this change the result and even then only a constituency level.

        The remedy here is a far greater ill, denying people a vote because they have not filled in the forms beloved by progressives. Means-tested access to democracy is not democracy!

        Moreover, there is a much greater danger in “household” voting, where non-individualistic cultures expect the man of the house, or the man of the community, to decide how everybody votes. This is the reason for the large muslim block vote for Labour and, in the case of Tower Hamlets, the corrupt Lutfur Rahman being immediately re-installed after his multi-year ban for precisely this kind of “machine politics” ended. ID’ing people at the polling station would do nothing to prevent this. You would have to abolish postal votes or introduce an electronic submission process and that is the slippery slope to voting machines and an unauditable election. Even then, you will still have a rotten borough that votes the way the imam tells them but they will all do it neatly in person with ID.

        If we vote in person on paper and our votes are counted in person in the open, it is a small price to pay if a handful of nutters successfully cast somebody else’s vote. Remember, elections are a weighing machine and it takes more than individual thumbs on the scale to tip them.

      6. Anonymous 2

        ‘ I think there’s something deeply patronising and neocolonial about the idea that you could get together a bunch of Rumanian fruit-pickers, march them down to the local voting booth and tell them to vote Labour.’

        I don’t follow you at all here. Are you sure you understand how the voting system works in the UK? There has been absolutely no suggestion, that I am aware of, that Rumanian fruit-pickers have been or will be marched to any voting booths. There have been scandals with regard to postal voting in the UK but voter impersonation at the booths has been extraordinarily rare. Voters in the UK have to be registered at their home address every year, are issued a card they can use to show their right to vote and have their name checked off a list when they vote. In this respect UK elections have been remarkably clean until now, with no election in any constituency being challenged on the grounds of voter impersonation and the introduction of the need to produce ID cards is clearly designed simply to reduce votes for parties to the Left of the Tories.

        In countries where ID cards are issued automatically by the state it is obviously a different story but in the UK you have to pay for a passport or a driving license. It may be voters will be able to get ID cards from their local government offices but how easy this will be (and whether again you will have to pay?) remains to be seen. Other forms of ID such as travel passes will only be acceptable if you are a pensioner.

        I am sorry, but Johnson has tried to rig the next election for the Tories.

    3. Carolinian

      Thanks. Of course I know nothing about British politics but I believe Thatcher did say that Tony Blair was her greatest accomplishment. If voters were more easily able to vote Labour would anything change? Like recent Dem rants here in the states the zeal to blame everything on Trump/Boris doesn’t ring entirely true.

      1. JohnA

        ‘If voters were more easily able to vote Labour would anything change? ‘

        It is less a case of how easy it is to vote, more that in the majority of constituencies, the First Past the Post System means it is a so-called safe seat for one or other of the parties. If you live in a safe Tory seat (or safe Labour) your own vote is utterly irrelevant. Only in so-called swing seats is voting important for your personal choice of party.
        Unless and until the FPTP system changes, Britain will remain fundamentally undemocratic with an inbuilt advantage to the Tories.

    4. fjallstrom

      But in the rest of Europe a national ID card is also the norm and government structures are in place to get them, making presenting the ID card when voting a simple matter of pulling it out from your wallet (or phone case). After all, you may need it to identify yourself at the bank, in a pharmacy or picking up a package, or passing a Schengen border, so in general you are going to carry it with you. Therefore, demanding it for voting in general doesn’t prevent anyone from voting.

      I am under the impression that UK scrapped their national ID card, and of course only those who drive has drivers licenses, and only those who sometimes travel abroad has passports. Under such circumstances demanding ID does prevent people from voting.

      And taken in the context where the government is also making it harder to register to vote for perceived opponments, and easier for supporters, does make it look very much as an attemp to limit the voting rights.

  4. Maff

    Boris is for Boris, no doubt. However I would add to a few things here:
    1. You insinuate that the pro-Brexit movement is connected with monied interests. Big finance was solidly on the other side of that debate and the remain side raised many times more money than the leavers.
    2. You talk about journalistic freedom (great) but
    (i) The mainstream media is terminally broken in the UK (and US), e.g. where is there any rational debate about Ukraine. Nowhere! Genuinely interested if anyone has a reasoned argument for this. Not Boris’s fault.
    (ii) I think one should always mention Julian Assange – a political prisoner. Free Assange!
    3. Universities and freedom of speech. I work at one. Its a mess. Everyone is offended. What happened to listening to the other side? The new bill is sorely needed.

    1. Yves Smith

      I am letting this comment through but I will not approve any more factually inaccurate comments. I don’t have time to waste debunking them.

      Leave raised markedly more money than Remain, so your claim about money is wildly false.

      At the Electoral Commission’s last count of donations, more than £7,500 (the ones that have to be declared), groups arguing for a leave vote had raised £12.1m, while £9m had been given to those backing remain.

      These are the big money donors….

  5. Rip Van Winkle

    Isn’t Boris doing public service infomercials for fuel-efficient China-made kitchen kettles these days?

  6. Paul Art

    I have always wondered about the ID requirement in the US. The last decent thing the Dems did to address this was the Motor Voter law by Bill and after that zilch. I suppose in the US this will never get fixed because running elections is insanely a ‘state issue’ and the various electoral laws at the federal level are turned into dust by the SCOTUS. Would be nice to have a conversation with Pramila Jayapal and Bernie about this. Can Progressive groups organize to get IDs for those who vote Dem? Wonder how Abrams tackled this in Georgia with her much praised organizing effort.

    1. KLG

      Regarding voter ID, I miss signing my name in a big, permanent ledger when I showed up to vote, which I did every election, small or large. Not that I have anything against proving my identity, but that is what my signature did. Voter ID laws in the United States are largely meant to prevent voting by those lacking a government-issued ID. These are the elderly. I remember well the daughter’s distress when her 93-year-old mother and my neighbor was not allowed to vote because they could not find her long-expired driver’s license; eventually the poll worker broke the law and allowed it, this in the elementary school around the corner where everyone knew the older woman as the local matriarch. Most of the others denied the vote as a consequence of these laws can be referred to as the “un-banked.” What does that tell you about the actual target of these largely GOP laws? Example: The current governor of Florida and Trump’s bête noire is making hay on this. Florida has a population of 21,000,000. Disputed votes that were actually illegal may be 21, probably fewer, in the entire state in any given election. The most famous illegal Florida vote in recent memory was cast by Ann Coulter. The overall numbers are the same in every other state. And the notion that an undocumented immigrant would vote is absurd. A group of Salvadoran men shared an apartment next door to me for several years. I knew one from his work in a nearby locally owned restaurant. I certainly never asked about their immigration status, but the inference is plain. These men walked everywhere, worked, paid income and payroll taxes, and undoubtedly remitted half their income at the Western Union storefront to family back home. In all ways that mattered they were exemplary citizens. And way too smart to risk an improper voting attempt.

    2. KLG

      Regarding Stacey Abrams in Georgia, she came very close in 2018 but has very little chance in the current election. For one thing, the current Governor sent a $250 tax refund, unasked, to every state income taxpayer, which was $500 to my better half and me who would never vote for him. But we are not representative of the Georgia electorate. Ms. Abrams’s efforts on the voting rights thing were vitiated by being seen as the tool of Michael Bloomberg, and none of this seems to have gained any traction in the current election. For the same reason, Herschel Walker, football player extraordinaire but nothing else that comes to mind, has a better than even chance of sending Raphael Warnock back to the pulpit of Ebeneezer Baptist Church, deep in the heart of Atlanta and the Beloved Community. Strange times, mostly because the Democrat Party is utterly clueless about the sustained effort that winning requires, as opposed to virtue signalling, for which they deserve a Pulitzer, Emmy, Grammy, Obie, Nobel and Academy Award.

  7. Alex Cox

    While it is true that Boris Johnson and the Tories are horrible, the real problem in the UK is that there is currently no worthwhile alternative. As Boris poignantly observed during one of his freak-outs, Sir Kier Starmer, as Britain’s top prosecutor, was responsible for letting Jimmy Saville get away with serial acts of paedophelia while jailing journalists (by which, presumably, he meant Julian Assange).

    The media (in particular the Guardian and BBC) teamed up with the intelligence agencies to destroy Corbyn. When Corbyn was party leader, the Labour party was the largest political group in Europe. Now it is a wreck. The Lib Dems are forever tarnished by their partnership with the Tories. The Greens have fallen into internecine fighting over the definition of antisemitism.

    Photographs from Starmer’s speech at the last Labour Party conference showed its aisles being patrolled by armed, tattooed, uniformed police. What progressive would vote for such an outfit? And for whom to vote, instead?

    1. paul

      Photographs from Starmer’s speech at the last Labour Party conference showed its aisles being patrolled by armed, tattooed, uniformed police. What progressive would vote for such an outfit? And for whom to vote, instead?

      The last thing a modern leader of labour wants is an embaraasingly old, and inconveniently principled soon to be former member, standing in the way of the long blair march to a government of unity.

      In scotland, wretched as the current SNP unionists are, tories and labour are finding much common ground and organising effectively*

      They would both bravely condemn Bevan’s opinion on the ruling party as ‘unhelpful’, even ‘divisive’ in these difficult times:

      “So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin,” he went on. “They condemned millions of people to semi-starvation. I warn you young men and women, do not listen to what they are saying, do not listen to the seductions of Lord Woolton. They have not changed, or if they have they are slightly worse.”

      *the bin strikes that recently occurred in edinburgh were totally down to the local lab/tory coalition.

    1. Anonymous 2

      Earlier than that. Since Murdoch turned the Sun newspaper from backing Labour to backing the Tories (1979).

  8. Tom Bradford

    UK politics have been rigged in favor of Tories

    Disagree. A rigged vote is where mysterious things happen between the ballot and the count whereunder the announced result does not accurately reflect the votes cast. I do not believe that happens in the UK.

    Indeed, “Democracy” in the UK is alive and well. The problem is that Democracy (capitalisation intended) is a true reflection of the demos, and where the demos – or a majority of it – is ill-informed, lazy, dazzled by bling, gullible and/or bribable, it gets the Government it deserves – ill-informed, lazy, dazzled by bling, gullible and/or bribable. In short, Boris Johnson.

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