If only I held the keys to a Tory WhatsApp group chat. I’d love to chime into the discussions of how to best privatise the NHS while underpaying frontline medical staff during a global pandemic, which duck house to renovate with taxpayers’ hard-earned cash, and I’d even be able to give directions to Barnard Castle for a much-needed eye test. However, the latest edition to the chat: how to suppress the votes of marginalised communities, while simultaneously saving public face, is arguably the most sinister.
Announced by the Queen on 11 May 2021, the proposed legislation will make photo ID mandatory to vote in the next general election. It’s a blatant act of voter suppression that will, if all goes ahead, have a material and detrimental impact on democracy in this country. If you’re not as angry as I am about this legislation, you should be—here’s why.
The mind-numbing aspect of this situation is that, at face value, it seems like a perfectly reasonable proposal. Over the recent decade, we’ve seen how fragile democracy can be to interference—not just in developing nations, but in Western countries with stable economies and relatively stable political infrastructure. Take the Cambridge Analytica scandal, for example, it’s clear that our ‘indestructible’ Western democracies are in fact susceptible to manipulation too.
With this in mind, it’s important to take every measure to prevent fraudulent voting and manipulation of democracy, right? The truth is, voter fraud is a non-existent problem in Great Britain. In fact, widespread voter fraud would be easy to see and would’ve been circulating in public discourse for far longer than literally yesterday, when the proposal of a required voter identification was made. Of the 595 all alleged claims of electoral voter fraud registered by the police in 2019, 33 were related to voter impersonation at the polling station. Take into context the 58 million votes cast in elections that year and you get an idea of how non-existent this problem is.
When taking into account the sheer numbers, the percentage of fraudulent votes in 2019 was 0.000057 per cent—you’re more likely to be hit by a car on your way to the polling station, at roughly 0.005 per cent, than cast a fraudulent vote. Critics would pass me off as lefty, still romanticising Corbyn-era Labour (which I might be). But don’t just take my word for it: one of Boris’ own senior MPs, David Davis, told The Independent the proposal of voter ID was an “illiberal solution for a non-existent problem.” It’s one of the rare times I’m actually inclined to agree with a Tory.
Ironically, although the UK is battling crises that dwarf voter fraud, the recent proposal of mandatory identification to vote serves only to exploit these same crises. As of writing this, around 5.5 million households are on Universal Credit—a system that keeps the unemployed, which has risen to record rates during the COVID-19 pandemic, in a perpetual state of poverty and economic anxiety.
According to official figures, 11 million people in the UK don’t have a passport or driver’s licence—a luxury that’s now mandatory to exercise their democratic right. And yet, despite the statistics, the UK offers no free or low-cost options to getting ID, unlike the majority of other countries which require identification to vote. It’s a direct attack on the democratic rights of the vulnerable and working class, a group who are already disenfranchised by the current political system.
I only experienced the hardship of Universal Credit for a short period. That’s a privilege in itself. Thousands of people in the UK, for a variety of reasons, are unable to work and are often, due to no fault of their own, trapped in a cycle of poverty. At a baseline, Universal Credit provides just £60 a week, a driver’s license in the UK will currently set you back £43. The illusion that those struggling to eat and heat their homes would fork out over half a week’s income just to vote is ludicrous, vastly insensitive and, frankly, plain evil.
The righteous act of preventing voter fraud is just disguising a blatant act of suppressing votes from marginalised communities. It’s for this reason that leading US civil rights groups have already criticised the UK government’s plans earlier this year. The proposal has also brought together a wide coalition from homeless charities, LGBTQ+ campaigners, those representing the elderly and democratic organisations—all of which unilaterally agree the multi-million plan could shut out millions of legitimate voters from the ballot box. These are also the groups that, stereotypically, tend to vote against the Conservative Party—a little bit of a coincidence there, don’t you think Boris?
Don’t even get me started on the countless examples which illustrate the deep socio-economic divide between communities in the UK. For the purpose of this article, and to keep my sanity, we’ll stick to who holds an ID. According to official government statistics, 61 per cent of Asians hold ID; 60 per cent other; 60 per cent mixed; 76 per cent white and just 53 per cent of black people hold ID. Black people will disproportionately have their votes suppressed by this proposed legislation compared to white people. In essence, the Tories are tackling a non-existent voter fraud problem by denying almost half of black citizens the right to legitimately vote.
There are somewhat legitimate arguments that this could be implemented correctly without damaging voter turnout. A trial that took place in 2018 and 2019 piloted the voter ID system across five English local councils and found that “99.6 of electors were about to cast their votes without a problem,” a great success according to the Conservatives. But like everything in British politics, dig a little deeper into the facts and the ugly and complicated reality begins to show its head.
The pilot showed that in 2018, 688 people were turned away for not having ID, of those 340 did not return to vote. In 2019, 2,000 people were turned away for not having ID and of those 750 did not return. Yes, these numbers might seem insignificant when looking at the bigger picture—but when the Tories have won consistencies by an extremely tight margin, small numbers can lead to huge consequences. Bear in mind these were local elections, where voter turnout is already 30 per cent less on average. Scale this up to a general election, a day of voting which has profound consequences for the years to come, and you get the picture.
The government should focus on their own internal inadequacies rather than the fabricated external threat of voter fraud. Ironically, as I’m writing this, my phone has been buzzing relentlessly with the news of Boris Johnson being issued a court judgement over unpaid debt.
Ultimately, this is a masquerade—a plot to deter innocent UK citizens from the right to vote in the upcoming general election. A plot which will, sadly, benefit the Conservative Party disproportionately. There’s a saying which I think is quite fitting for this scenario: “you can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter.” You may have tried to glitter your voter suppression turd with the battle against ‘voter fraud’, Boris, but we can still smell it from a mile off…
I was fourteen when I first saw a homeless person. My upbringing in the rural town of Richmond, tucked away at the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, was a sheltered bubble—it’s a blessing and a curse. Conservative since 1910, Richmondshire has hosted notable politicians such as William Hague and now Rishi Sunak.
Although we don’t face the same issues as those growing up in urban areas, there are unique problems people here face in terms of employability which have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reliant on tourism, with an abundance of independent hospitality businesses, the local economy has been crippled by lockdown—leaving many people, especially the young, out of work. A driving force behind cutting the £20 uplift to Universal Credit (UC), Rishi Sunak has abandoned his vulnerable constituents at a time when they need it most.
When not in London, Rishi Sunak—thought to be Parliament’s richest MP, whose family has a wealth larger than the Queen—resides in his 1.5 million pound mansion in Richmondshire. He lives only a few miles down the road but a world away from the economic hardships of his constituents.
According to the DWP, the total UC caseload in Richmondshire has increased by 73 per cent since March 2020. Removing the £20 uplift from local families could take around £6,200,000 out of the local economy, or more if the caseload increases.
Ultimately, a failure to extend the £20 uplift in Universal Credit—at time of national economic crisis—would not only be detrimental for the people claiming Universal Credit but also for the wider community and local economy of the very area Rishi Sunak represents.
For those households facing such economic hardship, the loss of £20 a week is equivalent to 3 days of food and almost 7 days of energy costs; a dangerous blow to the pocket that would be felt by many.
Dean Barber, 26, from Richmond, expressed the hardship he’d faced since losing his job in 2019. Before the uplift, Barber was unable to pay for the most basic necessities. “I couldn’t afford the internet—I couldn’t communicate with the outside world. It was debilitating. I had to cut down my food by half just to be able to pay the bills.”
Not only did this have an impact on his physical wellbeing but also his mental health too. “I was depressed. I felt like I was being punished for not being able to find a job because of where I lived.”
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Barber lost his job due to heightened prices in public transport and reduced hours. His experiences are echoed by many of his age. Trapped by geography: the beautiful prison (voted Europe’s best National Park) is both scenic and isolating. It lacks the resources and employment opportunities that cities offer.
Barber continued: “Richmond is a place, in my opinion, where people come to ‘settle down’ once they’ve built their life and wealth. Young people who want to build their lives here, like me, lack the same economic and career support that people in urban areas receive.”
Jackie Fielding, who works for Citizens Advice Bureau North Yorkshire, explained that those on Universal Credit in these areas can become trapped in a cycle of unemployment and lack of economic mobility. “Richmondshire is a rural area so having a car is essential—something that may not be as essential if you lived in a city or large town.”
“It is very difficult to live a normal life on UC. You could never finance a car. When you’re talking about the difficulty of paying gas or heating—what most people consider essential—these things aren’t always feasible on Universal Credit. You have to make a lot of sacrifices to get by.”
The damage of a reduction in Universal Credit extends to those who have to homeschool their children during the pandemic. Fielding tells me she’s had clients who have been unable to pay for necessities, such as paper, to facilitate their children’s learning.
Take into account the extra gas and electricity being used while working at home, it paints a very bleak picture for those at the brunt of Britain’s economic crisis. A single parent from Richmondshire, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed her struggles homeschooling her child while on Universal Credit.
“I dread to think what my gas and electric bills are going to be like—huge compared to this time last year when we were both at work or school. The Universal Credit uplift has made a huge difference—I’m probably spending £20 extra a week on gas and electric and heating bills alone.”
“I’ve been a taxpayer for 23 years. I’ve paid into that system and never claimed a penny of benefits in my entire life and now, when faced with an economic crisis through no fault of our own, we’re not getting the support we desperately need,” she added.
I’ll always be proud of my roots. I love my town and community. However, having such a notable MP that neglects his most vulnerable constituents is heartbreaking. Compound this with a local press that fails to hold him to account, and those who have slipped through the net of economic support are voiceless.
This is an issue that desperately needs addressing and for that, we need an MP who expresses care for his vulnerable constituents—not through words but action.