2 Lord Woodley debates involving the Cabinet Office

Mon 21st Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage: Part 1
Thu 17th Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 2 & Committee stage: Part 2

Elections Bill

Lord Woodley Excerpts
Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage
Monday 21st March 2022

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Elections Act 2022 View all Elections Act 2022 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 96-V Fifth marshalled list for Committee - (21 Mar 2022)
The balance of risk has not been made out. There is too much to lose for too many people at too difficult and divided a time. With the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and others who have added their names, including the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, who I think is also unable to be here, I say that Clause 1 should not stand part, given everything else we could be doing in the Bill.
Lord Woodley Portrait Lord Woodley (Lab)
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My Lords, I agree that Clause 1 should be struck from the Bill, if the Bill itself is not withdrawn. The clause is a dangerous solution to a problem that, as has been said, does not even exist. Requiring photo ID to vote will not strengthen democracy; it will weaken it. There is no doubt in my mind about that. It will damage the democratic rights of millions, disproportionately disfranchising poorer and ethnic minority voters, who, as we know, tend to lean towards Labour in elections.

There is no evidence that voter personation, which is what the clause is supposed to tackle, is a problem in this country. On the contrary, in 2020 there were just 139 allegations of voter fraud, which led to one conviction and one caution for personation. In 2019, although there were local, European and general elections, there was again just one conviction for personation out of 60 million votes—no problem there, then.

If this was not so serious it would be laughable. I am somewhat sceptical. It is not a coincidence that this Tory scheme for voter ID to suppress working-class voters is a mirror image of what has been done to black, Latino and American workers by the Republicans, as has been said. You would almost think that the ruling class was organising across the Atlantic to change the rules of the game itself. Surely not.

It is important to highlight the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s warning that Clause 1

“risks upsetting the balance of our current electoral system, making it more difficult to vote and removing an element of the trust inherent in the current system.”

We should not forget that.

Then, of course, there is the financial cost of compulsory voter ID: £120 million over 10 years according to the Cabinet Office. No election in British history has ever been undermined by mass fraud, so why are the Government spending millions of pounds to fix a problem that does not exist?

I believe the answer may simply be that the Government are worried that many working-class voters are starting to realise they were hoodwinked at the last election. Workers and their families are watching this Government take decision after decision that make the very rich richer while the rest of society is squeezed dry by the escalating cost of living crisis that we are confronted with now.

The Government’s total capitulation to the big energy firms has led to eye-watering bills that are rising higher and higher. The national insurance hike next month is a tax on jobs that will hammer the working poor most of all. Real-terms cuts to social security are driving millions into despair and destitution. All this pain and misery is against a backdrop of rampant inflation and crony Covid contracts for the chums of the Prime Minister, who mostly, in my view, likes to party.

Workers are waking up to the Government’s ideological assault on trade unions, the last line of defence against the bad bosses and a system that has attacked them, including this very Bill, especially Clause 27 on gagging trade unions, which we debated last week. Let us look at the Government’s much-hyped Employment Bill. I repeat: let us look at the Government’s much-hyped Employment Bill—except we cannot. It is nowhere to be seen, despite the manifesto pledge to

“make the UK the best place in the world to work.”

It would be scandalous if this promised legislation was again absent from the forthcoming gracious Address. Perhaps, the Minister would like to share his thoughts with us all on this subject.

Faced with the reality that the Tory party is not on their side, many workers and their families who lent the Prime Minister their vote to get Brexit done now want their vote back. This Bill as a whole, and especially Clause 1, looks like a blatant attempt to limit the damage this will cause the Conservatives at the next election.

In this place, we are privileged to play a key role by helping to improve legislation and holding the Government to account. We would not be doing our job properly if we did not challenge bad Bills, and this is a very bad Bill indeed. The Minister will deny it, but Clause 1 is a key component of a backwards, Trumpian attempt to rig democracy in favour of the Tories. That is why I support the cross-party call by my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti and others to strike it out. I urge the whole House to do exactly the same.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I support this proposal that the clause stand part but I have some caveats. A high-profile Guardian commentator alleged:

“The Tories are introducing voter ID purely because they know the people lacking relevant ID are most likely to vote Labour, and they want to prevent them from voting.”

One Labour MP described it as

“a cynical and ugly attempt to rig the system to disempower the poorest and most marginalised.”

I do not believe that at all. It seems to me those arguments—we have heard some here—are concrete evidence that cranky, conspiratorial thinking is alive and well across left and right. I am not convinced that this is a Trumpian plot, an attempt by the Republican Party to take over the Conservatives or anything else. The view that everything is a sinister international plot—and goodness knows I see a lot of that on social media—is itself in danger of fuelling a cynicism and nihilistic distrust in institutions and politics. We should not necessarily resort to it to oppose voter ID. I do not think we need to.

I am prepared to take at face value that the Conservative Government are trying to fulfil their manifesto pledge to tackle potential voter fraud. There certainly has been concern about it although, as it happens, that has largely been confined to postal votes, which are being dealt with separately. But even if I take it in good faith that they are trying to shore up trust in the electoral system, my big problem is that voter ID is a wrongheaded way of doing it; it is likely to backfire and stoke up mistrust.

Let me explain a few of those points. The voting system in Britain is the outcome of centuries of struggle and civic engagement, and often, indeed, class struggle. The degree of trust that allows us as a country to allow citizens to vote on the basis of just showing up and giving their name—it is as simple as that—is a real success story. That is something that the Government and all of us should be proud of and celebrate; and—guess what—there is no evidence that it has been subverted in any way. We should have the same pride that we do not live in a “produce your papers” society, based on constant official checks by authorities. It is important to maintain that distinction between citizens and the state.

That is why so many of us campaigned against ID cards in general when the Labour Party tried to bring them in, and more recently balked at vaccine passports pushed by the Government and backed by the Opposition. Even fully vaccinated enthusiasts for the jab such as myself worried that saying, “You have to show your papers”, was an egregious, divisive encouragement to look at one’s fellow citizens with suspicion. We are now talking about showing your papers when you go to vote. General ID cards are a barrier to being able to go freely about our business, while voter ID is a barrier to being able to vote freely. In that context, voter ID is not just a technical matter; no matter what method is used, it creates obstacles to voting.

I do not think that it will lead to mass disfranchisement and, to be honest, I find it slightly awkward when people say that poorer people and the marginalised will not be able to cope with filling in the forms or getting the ID; that is potentially rather patronising and is not our objection. Let us imagine what it will do to a bond of trust, however, if you go along to vote and witness numerous people being turned away from polling stations; we know that people will be turned away because we have seen pilot schemes in which that has happened. Surely that would put a question mark over those electors, as though they were somehow a bit dodgy, when in fact they have just got the wrong paperwork.

Then there are other kind of nightmare scenarios that I dread. There just needs to be a handful of officious, jobsworth local officials overzealously treating people as though they are would-be cheats with the paperwork, and chaos will ensue. Anyone who has had to go to a government department and deal with the paperwork will know that that is all completely feasible. What is more, the more the Government double down on this—I do not understand why they are doing so— the more they send the message that the voting system itself is a major problem. It gives the misleading impression that large-scale fraud is going on that needs to be tackled, which is just so negative. In fact, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, pointed out, there are positive ways of talking about engaging voters rather than this negative view that somehow we have to stop all those people who are trying to sneak in and cheat.

Democracy is based on trust. At its heart lies the belief that all people should be treated equally at the ballot box regardless of any social or educational inequality. Your status is irrelevant when you get to that polling booth. The most lowly person is equal to the highest person in the land—every vote is equal. That is based on the belief that everyone can be trusted to decide on the future direction of society and to vote in good faith. That is what democracy is all about.

When a very few bad apples—maybe only one, according to the evidence—become the focus for a Government to reorganise the election practice, or when there is a greater problem of distrusting democracy and democratic institutions, which I talked about at Second Reading, it is a bigger problem, but I do not think that this solves it. When that bigger problem of distrust in democratic institutions is narrowed down to take the form of a managerial, bureaucratic solution, I fear that democracy itself will be damaged. I fear that it will fuel only a climate in which future election results will be open to suspicion and in which the integrity of the system is undermined. However, I appeal to those people who agree in principle with this to avoid cheap sectarianism in making their case.

Elections Bill

Lord Woodley Excerpts
Lords Hansard - Part 2 & Committee stage
Thursday 17th March 2022

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Elections Act 2022 View all Elections Act 2022 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 96-IV Fourth marshalled list for Committee - (17 Mar 2022)
Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord for saying that. Over the last few weeks, I trawled through all of the types of organisations that could be formally linked with a political party, where they might have some sort of agreement to jointly campaign.

I have tried to grapple with and generally understand what this clause is really attempting to stop. It has been described as closing a loophole, but I do not see that. The biggest loophole in election spending is around the negative campaigning that occurs. This is often associated not with any political party or particular candidates but more with causes that want to disrupt the political process. Again, this comes back to the Russia report. Who is going to do the sort of elicit negative campaigning that we have seen? It is more likely to be organisations under the regulatory framework that will not be captured by this clause. It will be the legitimate civil society and trade union organisations that will be captured by it. It has got nothing to do with transparency or trying to ensure that there is proper reporting; it will have a very negative effect.

I said to the Minister that I would give him examples of how some affiliated unions are quite fearful. I mentioned the Musicians’ Union, a long-established affiliate of the Labour Party. It has a political fund, 32,000 members and a member on the national executive council—so there is a formal organisational link and a formal management link, if you like. Because the definition of “joint campaigning” is not set out in law, there is a real risk that the MU could be deemed to be in joint campaigning arrangements. It will play a part in agreeing our manifesto, through that Clause 5 process that I mentioned. So I can see a scenario where the Musicians’ Union, which spends negligible amounts in campaign expenditure in general elections—it puts out social media and website content about voting Labour but does have anywhere near enough expenditure to even require it to register with the Electoral Commission, as the notional cost of staff time has been all too low—will be captured here, undermining a long-established principle.

I have spoken for a long time, but it is really important that I set out a very clear description of the Labour Party’s structure and relationship with affiliated unions, and how that could be damaged by this clause. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to explain what it is designed to stop. Tell us, and perhaps we can co-operate in coming up with something better.

Lord Woodley Portrait Lord Woodley (Lab)
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My Lords, I support Amendment 52 in the name of my noble friend Lord Collins. He eloquently explained the pernicious threat posed by this legislation to our democracy. As a former leader of Unite the Union, I do not need anyone to tell me how dangerous this Bill, and Clause 27 in particular, will be to trade unions and their ability to campaign on the issues that matter to their members.

My noble friend Lord Collins said that it has not been thought through. Far from it: it has been well and truly thought through. This is yet another ideological assault on the trade union movement by this Government. It is nothing less than an attempt to gag the trade union voice once and for all, coming so soon after we debated the tax on trade unions to fund their own regulator, and a police and crime Bill which, as my noble friend Lord Hendy warned on Report, could see the end of the right to picket during lawful industrial action. It is clear that the Government’s agenda is nothing more than trying to stop us getting involved in talking with our members. It is certainly not “levelling up”, or “building back better”.

It is a shame, because there is no doubt that, as my noble friend said, trade unions are a working-class group of people who look after their members and those who struggle to look after themselves. They balance the bad bosses and a system that is sometimes rigged against them. We should always remember that union members earn higher wages than non-members. They have more paid holiday, better sick pay and safer workplaces. This is crucial, particularly at a time such as this when there is rampant inflation.

It is quite simple. Trade unions demand the right to campaign on any issue that matters to trade unionists, regardless, as has been said, of the Labour Party’s own priorities. For example, if I want to ask for more doctors for the NHS or to campaign against the far right in this country or on other serious industrial issues such as the shameful practice of fire and rehire, as a trade unionist, I must surely have the right to do so through the democratic structures of my union. Just because a trade union is affiliated to the Labour Party, it does not mean that we always share the same political priorities: far from it. Why should money be spent by Labour on an election campaign count against the limit allowed by, for example, my union, Unite? With the greatest respect, it makes absolutely no sense, unless the objective is to silence the trade unions.

Another clear danger with Clause 27 is the chilling effect it will have on unions because they will be afraid to break the rules. The rules themselves are unclear and could change at the whim of Ministers. It will also actively discourage unions and other groups from campaigning together as a coalition—a totally legitimate activity that should be welcomed in any democratic society.

Clause 27 could even lead to Labour-affiliated unions being held accountable for the entire election campaign expenditure of the Labour Party. This would be a completely crazy state of affairs. Because “joint campaigning” is not properly defined in the Bill, affiliated unions could discover that they had exceeded their own expenditure limits many times over. They could even be breaking the law before they had had a chance to begin to campaign on their own priorities. Surely this is absurd. It is almost surreal. This situation must not be allowed to happen.

Let us not kid ourselves: this is an unprecedented and unconstitutional attack on the Labour Party and on the affiliated trade unions that founded it. It completely undermines the most basic principles of democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of association. Again, as has been said, this Bill breaches the long-standing convention on cross-party support for any fundamental changes to the democratic process. Unfortunately, the Government are riding roughshod over this convention. They are attempting a power grab of epic proportions. For the sake of our democracy and for the freedoms we all take for granted, this draconian legislation—and this clause in particular—must be defeated before it ever reaches the statute book. Amendment 52 is a critical step in this fightback. I urge all those who wish to defend our democracy and freedoms to support it.

Lord Mann Portrait Lord Mann (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, when dealing with election law, it is always worth looking at unintended consequences. I could speak at length about trade unions, the Labour Party and funding arrangements. During the 1997 election, I was described by the Sunday Times as the “bag man”.

That has been covered. I shall restrict myself to two unintended consequences which the Government would not have expected and which I think will emerge. The first is the so-called dining clubs. Some years ago, I did quite a lot of work on stopping them meeting in here. The dining clubs are primarily a Conservative Party-supporting concept and institution. Occasionally, there are some in other parties. This is a long-standing way in which the Conservative Party has raised money— in my view, perfectly legitimately. The unintended consequence that I read in the legislation as framed is that, at the moment, electoral law requires only the net income to be considered. If £30,000 is spent on a dinner and £10,000 or £20,000 is raised, there is a specific legal requirement as to how this is accounted for. It is well and adequately covered in the law. However, this clause seems to say that the entire expenditure will have to be accounted for. This is not a problem for national parties, but it is a problem for individual candidates.

Until the last five years it was possible to know when a general election would be. I am in a minority in thinking that it is not a good idea to move away from fixed-term Parliaments. If an election is called at the whim of the Prime Minister of the day, the candidate will not know where this expenditure will fit with candidate expenses. I predict the unintended consequence of the possibility of a legal case which could lead to a duly elected Member of Parliament no longer being a Member of Parliament. I urge caution on this.

A second unintended consequence could be much more widespread. It concerns the use of Labour, Liberal and Conservative clubs for political campaigning—otherwise known as elections. I understand the law and, as I have worked in this area for a long time, I am pretty sure that I am right. At the moment, the law is fairly loose in that a Conservative Party campaign can be based in a Conservative club. Many are. This seems reasonable. There is probably a slight advantage in that there are more Conservative clubs these days than Labour or Liberal clubs. This does not seem to impact on our democracy in any undue way. However, this clause would make it necessary to account for this as joint campaigning and therefore election expenditure. It would become a nightmare of defining what is expenditure, when it is clearly joint campaigning for the officers of an independent Conservative, Labour or Liberal club, to agree to have a campaign base inside their club. As everyone knows, this is common across all three parties. One could easily cite scores of examples—sometimes there is more than one in the same election in one constituency.

That does not seem very clever. Again, people will have a field day with picking holes in it. When one looks at what I think are the appropriate, minimal amounts of spending in any one constituency, this is pretty major for our democracy. It is obviously not the Government’s intent. As ever, with electoral law, unintended consequences are the problem. There is a big problem with this clause.