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The Guardian view on the voter ID bill: cynical and hypocritical

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Vickie Flores/EPA</span>
Photograph: Vickie Flores/EPA

British citizens are not required by law to carry identity documents. That privilege is mostly taken for granted, although legislation for ID cards under the last Labour government was the subject of fierce opposition by civil liberties campaigners. The scheme, promoted as a security measure and an antidote to fraud, was diluted and eventually scrapped.

The main objection was that an ID card shifts the balance of power between the state and the individual. The expectation that citizens should have to prove themselves to the authorities creates automatic suspicion of anyone caught without such proof. It delegitimises, even criminalises, those who cannot produce the right papers, which is historically a mechanism of repression.

That is an argument Boris Johnson understood as an opposition MP. He pledged to destroy any ID card he was obliged to show. He called it a “plastic poll tax”. Now, Mr Johnson plans a law that would make access to a ballot paper conditional on production of photo ID. The ostensible purpose is to limit fraud, although impersonation of someone else in order to vote is not a significant problem. There was one conviction in 2019; there is no evidence that many more cases go undetected.

By contrast, about 11 million people, a quarter of the electorate, have no photo-bearing driving licence or passport – one of the documents expected to be used for voter verification. There is likely to be a high correlation between poverty and difficulty in meeting the ID requirement. Also, some minority communities will be disproportionately affected. The most recent data shows that people from black and south Asian backgrounds are less likely than their white peers to hold a driving licence. Older and disabled voters also number among those for whom this proposal will act as a barrier to participation. The impediment will be felt widely across society, but the balance of discrimination would favour the Tories in an election.

This is no coincidence. Putting the measure in an “electoral integrity bill” is an act of cynicism worthy of a banana republic. In reality, this is a device for voter suppression that will damage the integrity of British democracy. The invocation of fraud is devious camouflage. Ministers will no doubt say, as authoritarians always do, that someone with no intention of breaking the law has nothing to fear. The insidious inference is that poor and ethnic minority voters are the ones indulging in sharp electoral practice; or that immigrants cheat, which is the oldest, shrillest pitch in the dog-whistling repertoire.

The illiberal voter ID plan was included in the Queen’s speech alongside a “freedom of speech” bill, ostensibly compelling universities to resist censorship. The hypocrisy is pungent. Under any other government, Mr Johnson would fulminate against this bill as a waste of parliamentary time, while questioning what business the state has regulating the conduct of political debate on campus.

But for this prime minister, “democracy”, “integrity” and “liberty” are buttons to be pushed for effect, without meaningful connection to any code of personal or political conduct. He once believed that mandatory photo ID was a sinister means of excessive state control. Now he wants that control to be exerted over election turnout, to his advantage. So his prior belief is shed. It is not surprising, but it is contemptible.

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