John Bercow: It's time to rage against the liar on the right
- Credit: POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Former Commons speaker John Bercow on his anger at the government’s warped priorities and the Voter ID plan which proposes "a solution to a problem that does not exist"
What’s in the Queen’s Speech, and what’s left out of it, tells us everything about the warped priorities and sheer unpleasantness of this government. I am enraged about it and anyone who cares about human wellbeing and the health of our democracy should likewise be enraged.
The so-called Electoral Integrity Bill will require electors to provide photographic ID before they cast their votes. To some, that may seem an innocuous requirement and a prudent backstop against personation.
The Electoral Commission has detected some voter concern about fraudulent ballots and such ID is already obligatory in Northern Ireland where widespread abuse has long been feared.
The government will certainly have calculated that there is no downside risk in proceeding with the Bill. Yet there are good reasons to cry foul and to resist this egregious measure.
First, legislation should tackle identifiable problems or promote better outcomes for citizens. Governments should not litter the statute book with glorified press releases and declarations of culture war against imaginary baddies.
Simply put, this Bill is a solution to a problem that does not exist. In 2017, there was one conviction for personation and in 2018 there were none. In three decades of participation in election campaigns, not a single voter has ever raised the subject with me.
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To his credit, David Davis, a right wing ex-Conservative cabinet minister who has long championed civil liberties, has no truck with the government’s gimmicky wheeze, denouncing it as an “illiberal solution for a non-existent problem”.
Second, the real danger is that a new requirement will make it harder for young, gay, transgender, ethnic minority, homeless or poor citizens to vote because they are less likely to possess photo ID, especially if a driving licence or passport is the government’s preferred documentation. It’s thought that over three million people have no such ID.
Third, it is just common sense to recognise that those who have least are least likely to pay for photo ID but the government is offering no guarantee that it will foot the bill. If they don’t, they will be deliberately disenfranchising the disadvantaged.
Indeed, one does not have to be unduly cynical to think that is the point of this otherwise pointless policy: make it harder for people less likely to vote Conservative to vote at all.
Finally, in more than two decades as a Member of Parliament, I spoke to young people virtually every week, constantly emphasising the importance of democracy and urging them to make their voices heard and their votes count.
As speaker, I chaired the UK Youth Parliament in the Commons Chamber for ten successive years and visited their annual conference for ten successive years too.
Why? Because I saw it as my responsibility to communicate with and encourage the next generation of voters who are the future of our democracy and of our country.
Politicians, including ministers in this government, say that they want more young people to vote. Try proving it, I say, rather than hypocritically adopting a policy which will almost certainly mean fewer young people bother to vote.
While finding time for a Bill that the country doesn’t need, ministers have failed to find time for two Bills that it does. Yet again, despite multiple assurances that the government had no plans to remove or weaken cherished rights of workers and would legislate to protect and enhance them, no Bill to do so has been forthcoming.
Protecting people from being coerced into working more than 48 hours per week is vital, not least to key workers in the NHS, to those who toil in the transport sector and to people employed in the catering and leisure industries, for example.
Safeguarding paid holidays, guaranteeing rest breaks and tackling the scourge of exploitative zero hours contracts should be instinctive priorities for a government that cares for fairness at work, Sadly, they are not because it does not.
The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, still appears to believe that our labour market is too heavily regulated. He could not be more wrong. The UK’s labour market is one of the most deregulated of advanced economies and millions of our fellow citizens, typically those struggling to earn enough for eating and heating, are already working dangerously long hours.
It is delusional to suppose that we can compete with the Far East by slashing pay and conditions, rather than by sound investment, modern infrastructure and quality products. A sweatshop economy is commercially counter-productive and sure to spawn worse employee health, physical and mental alike.
Conservatives in the 1990s and the early noughties – I was in that category myself – were wrongheaded in supposing that the National Minimum Wage, the Parental Leave Directive and other progressive employment initiatives would be economically ruinous and politically unpopular. They were neither.
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were on the right side of that argument, as Conservatives belatedly conceded. Now the shadow business secretary, Ed Miliband, is rightly demanding that the government keeps its promise to legislate for workers’ rights and the opposition from Keir Starmer downwards would be wise relentlessly to press its case before breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner.
In doing so, it will have the wind of public opinion in its sails.
If the absence of fairness at work legislation is lamentable, the government’s failure to produce its long promised social care reform is still more deplorable. On Good Morning Britain last week, the health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, was shockingly poor as, through a wave of “ums”, “ahs” and “ers” it became apparent that the government had no such plan at all.
Of course, this is hugely disappointing to millions of people but it also flatly contradicts what Boris Johnson said to the country when he first became prime minister. In his words, ‘‘my job is to protect you or your parents or grandparents from the fear of having to sell your home to pay for the costs of care. And so I am announcing now – on the steps of Downing Street – that we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all, and with a clear plan we have prepared to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve’’.
Note the tense. Johnson referred to a plan ‘‘we have prepared’’. Whether he meant it when he said it is anyone’s guess. All we know is that nearly two years later the plan has not manifested itself. It has fast become the political equivalent of Billy Bunter’s postal order from Aunt Angela.
If it exists, let’s see it. If it doesn’t, the prime minister should apologise for wilfully misleading the country.
Of course, reforming social care will be costly, not least on account of savage cuts in funding after 2010. Demand is high and will become higher given changing demography and rising life expectancy. Those facts won’t change but, as the prime minister volunteered, it’s his job to sort it.
My instinct is that Andy Burnham is right. Social care should be integrated within the NHS and financed by general taxation.
The country needs social care reform and it needs it now. Ministers should stop procrastinating and start proposing.
To put it kindly, the government’s start to this session of parliament has been inauspicious. A Bill that will likely discourage our poorest citizens from exercising their democratic rights and neither of two Bills that would protect workers, the elderly and the sick.
It falls to the opposition to seek to shame ministers into honouring their commitments and to underline that if the Conservatives won’t act, Labour will.
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