By Lori Inglis-Hall
It’s perhaps a little obvious, to suggest that politics and a desire for power often go hand in hand, yet since the 2015 election the Conservatives have been unsubtle, to say the least, in pursuing the party’s desire to hold onto power no matter what.
There were hints during the long years of the Coalition of what was to come; the Liberal Democrats’ horror at proposed boundary changes for constituencies (proposals which are back and as bad as ever), the Tories’ horror at the mere thought of electoral reform. Now Osborne (for it is said that he is the architect of such plans) has no need to pander to the supposedly steadying hand of his minority partner Nick Clegg, there is no stopping him. The sheer chutzpah of what is happening in Westminster is matched only by the whimper of discord with which the proposals have been met.
This is a power grab so blatant it surely shows the Tories contempt for the British public. It is time to get angry.
This story has been simmering for a while, but don’t be too hard on yourself if you aren’t quite up to speed; the press have been strangely reticent in their reporting of possibly the biggest political scandal of the decade (to such a degree that leading political talking heads Alan Johnson and Michael Portillo appeared to know nothing of the claims whenquestioned by Andrew Neil).
The Party is accused of breaking election spending rules by failing to declare accommodation costs for activists involved in the now infamous ‘Battle Bus’ campaign, which is thought to have benefited 29 Conservative candidates fighting for marginal seats. The buses are believed to have played a crucial role in helping 22 Conservative candidates win marginal seats (including 14 from the Liberal Democrats in the South West alone).
Channel 4 News, which broke the story as the rest of the media deliberately looked elsewhere, has alleged that the Conservatives failed to declare some £38,000 worth of accommodation costs. CCHQ claim this was a simple administrative error; the costs incorrectly recorded as part of the candidates’ expenses, rather than as part of national campaign spending.
Yet the (normally toothless) Electoral Commission is taking the matter extremely seriously. Eight Police Forces are investigating the claims raised by Channel 4 News. SNP Politician Pete Wishart has written to the Metropolitan Police to request a nationwide investigation into the allegations.
David Cameron denied allegations that the Tories had deliberately broken election spending rules, but admitted; “If there were misdeclarations or things left out we have to put those in place, but I’m confident we can answer all the questions that are being put to us.”
What’s interesting here (aside from the allegations that the Conservatives tried to buy their way into marginal seats) are the potential implications. If the allegations are found to be true, then 22 Conservative MPs face losing their seats. The Conservative Government’s majority in the House of Commons is just 18.
Fixed Term Parliament Act
The Fixed Term Parliament Act (FTPA) was brought in 2011 under the deal agreed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, as a means of keeping the Coalition Government together.
Before the Act, it was up to the Prime Minister to call an election at a time of their choosing, providing the election fell within five years of the last one. Now elections are fixed, it means a decade of Conservative rule.
But the Act has other implications. Under the terms of the FTPA, the only way a government can fall is if it resigns, which seems rather unlikely, or if a motion of no confidence is passed in the House of Commons, as in, Conservative backbenchers would have to vote to topple their own party. Which again, seems unlikely.
Under the terms of the FTPA it is almost impossible to force a Government from power. The Government could see defeats on the Queen’s Speech, the budget, the resignation of the Prime Minister, and nothing would change.
The FTPA also led to the so-called ‘zombie parliament’ of the year leading up to the 2015 general election, in which MP’s in the Commons found themselves with little to do except drag their heels awaiting the election.
Another hangover from the Coalition, and the proposal which provoked the first Lib Dem revolt against their Coalition partners. With the burden of coalition behind them, the Conservatives are eager to push on with the changes, which will see the number of MP’s reduced from 650 to 600 and constituencies redrawn to reflect a ‘more equal’ share of the vote.
While a smaller House of Commons and a reduction in the associated costs might seem appealing, it’s the detail of the proposals that’s so damning. Of the 50 seats which will be lost (as per the 2013 review), 35 are currently held by Labour MPs. The changes will reduce the number of Labour seats, and what’s more, the party’s remaining seats will become more marginal. This is because the expanded constituencies will include more suburban and rural voters; voters who would vote for a wooden spoon if it was wearing a Tory blue rosette. No more Labour strongholds.
An analysis on Labour List found that the party might need a bigger swing than it achieved in 1997 to win even a small overall majority in 2020, and the changes would make it even harder for the party to win back much needed votes from the SNP.
The Conservatives had an opportunity to bring in changes which would have reflected the true voice of a constituency; but they said no to electoral reform. These proposals are little more than gerrymandering, and will make it even harder to unseat the current Conservative majority in the Commons.
The Electoral Register and Individual Registration
The move from household registration on the electoral register to individual registration was undertaken so quietly, it is but a minor technical change after all, that many of you might not have even noticed.
And it’s quite possible that many haven’t noticed, because figures compiled earlier this year showed that nearly 800,000 people have lost their ability to vote.
Again, amid accusations that the Tories are trying to rig the system, the devil is in the detail. The Government claim they have simply removed ‘ghost voters’ – people who have died, or moved, and yet the changes have seen a 40% reduction in the number of young people registered to vote.
Because of course, ‘people who have moved house’ includes a large number of students, who tend to move every year. Interestingly, the average Conservative voter is 65 years old.
Analysis from groups such as Hope not Hate also found that voters in deprived areas are disproportionately affected by the changes, with estimates showing that 22.9% of voters in Hackney could see their details disappear from the register. This is because such areas have high levels of people living in privately rented accommodation – people who are difficult to keep track of because of their tendency to move often.
The implications are clear – the change to individual registration is causing widespread disenfranchisement of the young and the poor, voters who, historically, tend to vote Labour.
House of Lords
The House of Lords has shown itself to be capable of the occasional rebellion – the Trade Union Bill, for example, which the Government has been forced to water down (but which could still see Labour lose £8 million a year in funding), as well as inflicting a series of heavy defeats on numerous government bills.
David Cameron is angry. So angry, he wants to limit the power of the House of Lords and reduce their ability to reject legislation. Not necessarily a bad thing, the Lords is an inherently undemocratic institution after all, yet it has played an important role in the fight against ESA changes, and support for refugee children. It is not without it’s worth.
And there’s more. The reason Cameron has suffered such humiliating losses in recent months is because he doesn’t have a majority in the Lords. But he’s got a plan there too; in fact, David Cameron is busy stuffing the Lords with new Peers, 244 in fact, as of February this year. And he’s not finished yet. Speculation is rife that Cameron will add a further 40 peers – most of them Conservatives – after the EU referendum.
This is symptomatic of the Tories approach to power – change the system to suit them, and shore up their numbers by nobbling the opposition. And if that isn’t enough, ignore the rules and buy the election (allegedly). This is the state of democracy in Britain in 2016 and what’s worse is we aren’t doing a thing to stop them.