The Price of Freedom is Eternal Vigilance (from an NUM South Wales Banner)

By Mick Antoniw

Recent events in the House of Commons over the Tory government’s attempts to override the recommendations of the Standards Committee in order to protect one of Prime Minister’s friends have rightly been condemned by Keir Starmer as corrupt and contemptible.

This is however only the latest in a series of episodes which not only undermine the reputation of Parliament but threaten the foundations of democracy and the rule of law itself. The extent of their corruption and undermining of democratic processes is now being increasingly exposed. The current attempt to manipulate political control over the independent communications regulator Ofcom is one of many.

These practices are being reinforced by a series of legislative proposals, some of which are currently on their journeys through the Commons and Lords, which begin the process of dismantling the democratic processes and procedures upon which our democratic system in based. Bit by bit, slowly but deliberately and strategically, democracy and the rule of law are being sidelined.

The UK government’s Elections Bill is just one example. It introduces prescriptive voter ID measures purportedly to tackle a voter fraud problem for which, quite frankly ,there is no evidential justification. It is a form of voter suppression based on tactics gleaned from the American Republican Party far right which has been working its way through the US States and now finds favour in the ideological bosom of the Conservative Party.

Voter suppression can take many forms but the UK Bill is essentially about making it more difficult for people to vote or to prove entitlement to vote and indeed even to register to vote under the guise of preventing electoral fraud.

It has other even darker elements to it, such as extending the voting rights to all UK citizens who live abroad, removing the 15 year time limit currently applicable.

The purpose is clear: it would legitimise financial donations to the Tory Party from the wealthy millionaires and billionaires for whom the UK is no longer their residence. It is also being used to change the voting system for English Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners. The Conservative tactic is clear: if you cannot win an election, then change the voting system to make it more difficult for non-Conservative candidates to win.

In Wales, the Welsh Government will not be recommending consent to the Bill being extended to the devolved Welsh local government and Senedd (Welsh Parliament) elections. The changes will be confined to the UK Westminster elections, Police and Crime Commissioners and English local government elections. 

The Welsh and English electoral systems which are already divergent will become increasingly so. In Wales, entitlement to vote in Senedd and local government elections begins at 16. After the May 2022 elections, in their first two years, Councils will have the power to introduce single transferable voting.

The Welsh Labour government will be going even further by bringing forth its own Electoral Reform (Wales) Bill, which will seek to transform and modernise the electoral system on the principles of improving and simplifying accessibility. Instead of looking for ways of making electoral participation more exclusive we will be legislating to create a 21st century voting system, codifying Welsh electoral law in Welsh and English, and taking advantage of digitisation to make voting easier and more accessible for everyone.

In the run-up to our May 2022 Council elections we will also be piloting a number of alternative ways of voting, such as different days, over several days in common locations, even in a school and college setting to make it easier for young voters to participate.

Free, fair, accessible and inclusive elections are the cornerstone to the democratic wellbeing of our democracy. When 40% of citizens don’t vote in Westminster elections, 50% in Senedd elections and 60% in Council elections, our democratic system is at a precipice.

Our democracy is under sustained threat by cumulative proposed Tory reforms. Ouster clauses in legislation to prevent the Courts from constraining unlawful action by the government, electoral changes to make it more difficult for non-Conservative candidates to win Mayoral elections in England, proposed restrictions on the right to demonstrate and the undermining of devolution and the use of public funds to buy votes through so-called shared prosperity and levelling-up funding all unravel our democratic foundations and increasingly contribute to the potential break-up of the UK.

In Wales we do not intend to be caught on the back foot. We intend to embrace momentum for change to improve and modernise our democracy.  

We are launching   our own independent Commission to explore all progressive options for improving our Welsh democracy and our relationship with the nations of the UK, headed by constitutional experts Professor Laura McAllister and Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Tories are sowing the seeds of democratic disintegration. It is our duty to oppose them and to provide  better and progressive alternatives. This is what we have started to do in Wales.

Mick Antoniw is the Welsh Labour Senedd Member for Pontypridd, Counsel General for Wales and Minister for the Constitution in the Welsh Government.

Image: Senedd building. Source: Flickr. Author: eNil, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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