Lesley Laird: Tories appear set on rigging the election system

Theresa May's Government has shown it is not interested in what other political parties, apart from the DUP, have to say. Picture: Getty
Theresa May's Government has shown it is not interested in what other political parties, apart from the DUP, have to say. Picture: Getty
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Performance coaches in elite sport look for marginal gains, the tiny improvement which will give them the edge over rivals. But in the race for power, the Conservatives have abandoned all pretence about aiming higher. This is about holding on at all costs.

For them it’s no longer about marginal gains, but instead about gaining marginals – whether by fair means or foul.

David Cameron first brought forward boundary change proposals resulting in the loss of 50 MPs at Westminster in 2011, an arbitrary figure plucked out of the air for headline purposes rather than to address the urgent demand of any new reality at the time.

But the world has not stopped turning in the years since then and it’s bitterly ironic that this proposal, which will see power ebb away from elected Members of Parliament, is being resurrected at precisely the time when Brexit will see powers flow back to the UK from Europe.

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And, while the number of MPs holding the executive to account is set to shrink, the House of Lords expands and the civil service continues to grow exponentially. Additionally, with no plans to reduce ministerial posts, there will be even fewer opportunities for MPs to properly scrutinise UK Government decisions amid the expected avalanche of new legislation which will be required.

It doesn’t help that the Boundary Commission’s final report and recommendations will not be seen by Parliament until Government decides to publish them. David Mundell has had them since Wednesday.

It’s not difficult to see why a strategy of cutting MPs would benefit the Tories. It would afford an instant solution in how to reduce the number of MPs who are making the Government’s life difficult. Meanwhile, rumours abound at Westminster that affected Tory MPs who roll over and accept the boundary changes will be promised safe seats elsewhere.

It could also provide an easier route to victory in more marginal seats if constituencies were gerrymandered to suit Tory voter profiles. And if that didn’t work? Well, you could simply stop potential opponents from voting altogether, under the false cover of claiming that you are making the system fairer and eliminating fraud.

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Recent trials of voter ID schemes in five English boroughs have not produced a significant crackdown on fraud. To date, here’s been one conviction for ‘personation’ at a polling station, while eight others accepted cautions for misdemeanors including a false statement on a nomination form.

The scheme does succeed, however, in alienating voters; it’s a sledgehammer approach to cracking a nut which risks making turnout even more depressingly low than it was before.

According to YouGov analysis of the last election, for every 10 years older that a voter was, they were nine per cent more likely to vote Tory, with Labour in the lead among voters right up to the age of 47. But only a little over half of eligible voters aged 18 or 19 actually cast their vote, while among over 70s the turnout was 84 per cent.

So, from a Tory perspective, it’s clear that one path to holding on to power is to obstruct the youth vote further.

MP numbers – however small – are important. We have seen in the last year the damage that can be done by the 10 DUP members who raked in a £1 billion bung for Northern Ireland in exchange for their obedience.

That takes the Government’s effective majority to 13 – by coincidence the same number of Tory MPs supposed to be representing Scottish constituencies and waving the flag for Ruth Davidson’s party. But without the guile of the DUP, the feeble 13 have failed to secure any similar concessions for Scotland while David Mundell maintains his ghostly presence in Dover House and remains our invisible man in the Cabinet without a seat at the Brexit table.

But the Tories have a bigger goal in mind and their attempt to swing elections is straight out of the Republican/Donald Trump playbook.

The United States has an unenviable record of voter suppression.

So, despite the fact that the US have also had a two-term black president, the old battles of the American Civil War and the civil rights movement are now fought in polling stations and even in the Supreme Court, which five years ago removed a section of the Voting Rights Act which required state-level election law changes to be approved by the federal government.

Republicans have been quick to exploit that opportunity, with voter ID legislation which requires the electorate to jump through hoops simply to participate in the most basic process in a democracy, as well as life bans on voting for felons – which disproportionately affects minorities in what is still a deeply racist criminal justice system.

I read that in Texas a would-be voter was turned away from a polling station because they only carried a student ID. A gun licence holder, however, would have been allowed to cast their vote.

It’s an extreme example, but it demonstrates how easy it would be for new rules in this country to target sections of the population, and then to “inadvertently” disenfranchise them.

Leave voters were urged “take back control”, but it’s clear the Tory establishment will do anything, including skew the rules, to avoid handing over the wheel.

But this latest Tory power grab could cost us the Union.

David Mundell recently warned Scotsman readers that not accepting Theresa May’s Chequers Deal could lead to Scottish Independence, a choice statement from a Scottish Secretary whose errors of judgement in handling Brexit and intergovernmental relations have already fueled the flames of Indyref2.

Previous boundary proposals would have led to the loss of six of 59 seats in Scotland – a cut which was disproportionately higher, given the Scottish population.

Labour recognises a boundary review is needed ahead of the next General Election but we stand ready to work with all parties in achieving that.

But this Government is proving itself to be incapable of working with anyone – and more sinister still, appear deliberately focused on party at all costs, even if that means sacrificing the Union.

Lesley Laird is Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland