Democracy is not just about elections: there is so much more at stake – Part 2

Journalists assembled outside the Supreme Court in London as legal debates continue in case brought by Gina Miller challenging Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue UK Parliament. Photo by Steve Nimmons, Wikimedia Commons

In Part 1, I looked at the state of our electoral system, the iniquities of first-past-the-post and the measures this government is intent on taking to cement its stranglehold on power. Now I am going to look at the key institutions that exist to keep our politicians honest, to scrutinise and to police, as well as considering the rights for citizens that are the hallmark of a functioning democracy. More alarmingly, I will draw your attention to the plans to weaken, undermine or remove powers from key democratic institutions.

Let’s start with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the committee to which the commissioner reports – the hottest of topics right now, following the Owen Paterson debacle.

“The Commissioner investigates allegations that MPs have breached the rules found in paragraphs 11-18 of the House of Commons’ Code of Conduct for Members.”

If you would like to read the code by which MPs are sworn to abide, you can do so here. Government ministers must also comply with the ministerial code; but guess who decides whether or not that has been breached? The prime minister. A serial flouter of the code himself, Johnson has batted away the very many breaches by his mates, including the bullying of which Priti Patel was found guilty. Chances of this man ever using the code for anything other than revenge? Zero.

Please watch chair of the parliamentary standards committee Chris Bryant’s speech in full. He sets the issue out clearly and compellingly.

We need to understand that a government which is allowed to ‘mark its own homework’ is in a dangerously powerful position which – effectively – licenses corruption and potentially even worse crimes. That’s why the source of paid work and donations is so important. It matters when a party in power or a minister or MP with influence is heavily backed by the Russians, or by property developers or private health companies, because that money is donated or paid with an expectation of payback. Check out those donor/PPE contracts and just see how your money has been funnelled into private pockets: money that might have gone to your local hospital, or school, or environment. It’s stealing.

Then there’s the Electoral Commission (EC), a body that is currently under sustained attack from Johnson and his cabal. This hitherto-independent body exists to ensure that elections are fair, free from overseas interference, not rigged by money, lies or fraud, and are compliant with electoral law.

“The Commission may impose financial civil penalties on political parties and their accounting units if they fail to submit donation and loans returns, campaign spending return or statements of account. The Commission also has the power to seek forfeiture of impermissible donations accepted by political parties.”

In July 2018 the EC watchdog found that Vote Leave had broken electoral law. The campaign broke spending limits, imposed by Parliament to ensure a fair referendum, by colluding with another organisation, thereby exceeding the spending limit by £449,079 – a huge amount of money in any political campaign.

In May of this year, the EC launched an investigation into the controversial, extravagant refurbishment of Johnson’s Downing Street flat (not that it belongs to him personally, of course, but to the state). Johnson is, as we have seen repeatedly, extremely vindictive to those individuals or bodies which seek to curb his law/code-breaking behaviour, so it came as no surprise when he published plans to remove the EC’s power to prosecute law-breaking, just a few weeks after the EC’s investigation was announced.

The government claims that the EC’s ability to take offenders to court ‘wastes public money’. By removing such an important route for the administration of enforcement and justice, the government would basically be ripping out the EC’s last remaining teeth. As it is, the EC is constrained as to the level of fines it can impose, with parallels to the regulation of the water companies, for example, where it is often cheaper for them to pay fines for sewage dumping rather than fix the problem.

Any reasonable person will understand that weak sanctions cannot deter or adequately punish determined offenders. Trust in democratic probity has already eroded: knowing that there is no punishment for those who abuse their office can only speed up its destruction. Once people believe that all politicians are corrupt, it’s game over for all but those who know they will get what they want from a certain party.

But there is worse to come if Johnson gets his way. Under the elections bill which is being rammed through parliament right now, the Cabinet Office (aka Michael Gove) would be empowered to set the EC’s entire remit. You can bet this will not include widening its powers or strengthening its sanctions. Quite the reverse. The government’s deep hatred for all scrutiny will almost certainly manifest itself in the muzzling of the EC.

This threatens to undermine the very foundations of our democracy. What’s more, under the elections bill powers, the Cabinet Office will be able to decide which organisations and which campaign activities are permitted to operate in an election. This means that it could ban charities and activist groups from campaigning if they apply for registration as a non-party campaigner (as many pro-EU groups did, for example).

Imagine this applied to any group which is opposed to Conservative policy in any area – privatising the NHS or climate (in)action, say – and which wants to campaign to remove the Conservatives. The government is only too well aware that there is a majority in this country who would vote for opposition parties, and that an alliance of all those opposed to them could end their reign, even with the benefit of first-past-the post. So the plan is to close off that option as far as is possible. This is the Putin/ Lukashenko/Erdogan model: shutting down dissent and opposition. It is a fast track to fascism.

The Right to Protest

Under Patel’s draconian police, crime, courts and sentencing bill, which has almost completed its passage through both houses, the police will have the power to prevent or end peaceful protest and to arrest organisers and participants on the flimsiest of pretexts.

If any of us find ourselves unable trust the Police to allow us to protest peacefully and without a biased response, we will hide in our houses, cowed and mistrustful. If people of colour or minority groups or activist organisations suspect they will be targeted under this new law, their democratic rights have been impaired, limited or denied.

It is no accident that Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter protests are massively over-policed. Patel is determined to ensure that the general public see their protests as expensive and wasteful of police resources.

You may never have taken part in a demonstration or been on a march, but what happens when you want to protest the closure of your local hospital, or fire station, or school? Or you want your local council to stop investing in fossil fuel companies, or your water provider to stop dumping sewage on your local beach?

Losing our rights to peaceful protest, on top of the removal of checks and balances on those in power, makes a joke of our claim to be a democracy.

The Police and Courts

A healthy democracy has a healthy respect for the rule of law and a healthy respect and trust for the enforcement of the law. So what happens to democracy when people lose faith in the police to go after those in power? When the people at the top of police forces are seen as political appointments? When Priti Patel wants to change the rules so that Police Commissioners (politicians!) are elected not by proportional representation, but by first-past-the-post (to favour Conservatives)?

Equal access to justice is absolutely vital in a democracy, but, again, we have a government which has starved the magistrate and county courts of funding, cut access to legal aid, and under-resourced the police, leaving people waiting for years for cases to be heard and resolved. If access to the law is only possible with money, ordinary citizens are left disempowered and disenfranchised.

Judicial Review

Johnson has a vendetta against the judges who have thwarted his attempts to break or subvert the law. Maddened by judgement that his prorogation of parliament was unlawful, and by the very many instances of judicial review which have found that the government has broken the law across a wide range of areas of activity including human rights, the right to clean air, PPE procurement etc, Johnson has set his sights on making the executive (ie the government) exempt from or able to ignore the verdicts from judicial review.

This should terrify us all. All public bodies must comply with the law, and without recourse to judicial review we have no way to hold them to account if they break the law. It takes “one rule for them and another for us” to a whole new and appalling level. We MUST have an independent judiciary, or we are in deep, deep trouble. Public law is the very foundation of our democracy. Once the courts are muzzled or politicised, no citizen is safe.

In the third and final part of this series, I will look at the freedom of the press and the media, and how the fourth estate has been weaponised, to the detriment of our democracy.