Monday, 9 January 2017

Freedom is fragile; we shouldn’t let a scared political class put barriers in the way of our rights.

Two news stories reminded me recently that the franchise we all take for granted is less secure than we think.

Over Christmas, while the political circus was out of town the government slipped out the announcement that plans to trial requiring voters to produce ID at polling stations in eighteen areas at the next local elections.

This is, outwardly at least, a response to claims made in a report written by former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles that electoral fraud is a real and present threat to the legitimacy of our democracy.

In nearly twenty years active involvement with politics I have seen little evidence of this. Where there are infringements of the rules, it is more often due to a mix of innocence and incompetence than criminality.

Never mind, it gives the government a chance to make a knee jerk reaction to a problem that doesn't exist.

Then a couple of days into the new year I opened the Daily Mirror to read a full page plea for readers to write to Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to protest against section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act.

This nasty little piece of legislation will make newspapers liable for the full legal costs of any case taken out against them, even if the court finds in the papers favour. The only way papers can avoid potential bankruptcy is by joining state backed press regulator IMPRESS, a quango so sinister it might have given Stalin second thoughts.

A better way of muzzling the press and scaring owners and editors out of supporting investigative journalism is impossible to imagine.

Both these stories have a subtext that says something dark and worrying about the attitudes of the political establishment.

Asking voters to produce ID at polling stations isn’t about combating electoral fraud; it is a way of keeping anyone who might support something other than the neo-liberal economic consensus quiet. After all the biggest impact of this plan will be on the communities it has hit hardest, where people haven’t got passports because they often can’t afford to eat never mind go on foreign holidays.

The political class have never forgiven the press for exposing their not so little fiddles over their expenses. Remember the people who wanted you to pay for their duck houses are the same hypocrites who want benefits claimants sanctioned for not applying for jobs that don’t exist.

In Britain, we like to imagine that we are different to other countries that have written constitutions. It is a comforting myth based on imagined superiority; it is as dangerous as it is deluded.

If we allow the press to be muzzled by people with deep pockets and dark secrets and voting to become something they let us do only when we have proved who we are to some official it will be a symbolic snipping of the silken cords that hold up our democracy. There is a real risk of their being replaced by the steel cables of control and coercion.

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