An unearthed paper suggests there are fears at the very top of Parliament that democracy is under threat, reports Josiah Mortimer
Sign up for our weekly Behind the Headlines email and get a free copy of Byline Times posted to you
Parliament’s most senior standards official has warned of a slip towards “parliamentary dictatorship” in British politics – in what one Labour MP has called a “screeching klaxon warning that our democracy is being fundamentally undermined”.
The new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards’ paper – ‘Parliamentary Democracy and Parliamentary Dictatorship’ – was written by Daniel Greenberg CB, for his personal website, in a “purely private capacity”. Nonetheless, it is an extraordinary intervention from Parliament’s top standards official.
With several pieces of legislation passing through Parliament that have raised concerns about the undermining of democracy, the paper seems to represent an outspoken defence of a strong Parliament in the face of overreaching ministers.
“If the present incumbent majority in an elected legislature (which therefore forms the executive) has absolute power to make any changes of the law that it wants, including changes designed to entrench its position, that becomes a parliamentary dictatorship,” Greenberg writes.
He adds that the Government may choose to “preserve the legislature” in a powerless form to “mask its authoritarianism” – or use its new powers to “cast the legislature aside as an irrelevance”.
Don’t Miss a Story
“In either case it has ceased to be a parliamentary democracy in any meaningful sense,” he continues. “Parliamentary democracy is about protecting the rights of minorities: the rights of all those people with whom the majority disagree.”
The Public Order Bill is one piece of legislation he may be referring to, which attempts to put back into law parts of the controversial Policing, Courts, Sentencing and Crime Act that were removed by peers last year. It includes a proposed ban on protest methods including locking or glueing onto surfaces to stop removal by police, as well as police orders that can ban people from protesting even when they haven’t been convicted of an offence.
This week, key parts of the controversial Public Order Bill were thrown out by peers, including a measure that would have allowed police to conduct suspicion-less stop and searches in response to so-called ‘disruptive demonstrations’.
Lords also voted to limit protest banning orders and scrapped a clause that would have outlawed slow marching in front of traffic (but, as the latter provision was only added once the bill reached the Lords, it reportedly cannot be reinstated).
The Government is likely to attempt to put most of the measures back into the bill.
Another concerning law introduced by the Government is last year’s Elections Act, which will impose the need to show voter ID in all elections in England. Up to two million people could be denied a vote due to the measures.
Greenberg appears to reference the move in his paper, writing: “The [current political] system works over the decades and the centuries, provided the party in government never succumbs to the temptation to use its temporary parliamentary majority to alter electoral systems, judicial powers, or other fundamental constitutional arrangements in such a way as to ensure that it will never lose an election again.”
Opposition parties have accused the voter ID law of representing a “partisan push”, given that younger and low-income people are less likely to have certain forms of photo ID such as driving licences.
The Elections Act also unilaterally changed the voting system for mayoral elections in England, removing voters’ ability to cast a second preference. Labour believes that this is an effort to undermine London Mayor Sadiq Khan, as he picks up large numbers of second-preference votes from Green and Liberal Democrat supporters.
“Once the government chooses to use its majority in Parliament to erect a one-way portal through which balls can pass but cannot be returned – even if the portal has some limitations – the game is not so much changed as ended,” Greenberg writes.
“If it does that, parliamentary democracy has given way to parliamentary dictatorship; and when that happens in any country, as it does from time to time over the years, the ultimate losers are always the demos – the entire people – whose holistic interests a parliamentary democracy is designed to protect.”
The expansion of executive powers could also refer to the increasing use of so-called Henry VIII clauses, whereby legislation debated by MPs and peers is threadbare, instead letting ministers set the details later of their own accord with very limited scrutiny. This is the case with the anti-union Minimum Service Levels legislation currently being rushed through.
Labour MP Clive Lewis told Byline Times: “The individual charged with upholding the standards of the core of our democracy in Parliament has himself identified a fundamental danger to parliamentary democracy.
“These are not the rantings of protestors or left wing MPs warning about the rise of authoritarianism. This is someone at the very heart of the political establishment that has sounded screeching klaxon warning that our democracy is being fundamentally undermined.”
Rishi Sunak has continued to push forward the Public Order Bill and voter ID plans. Photo: PA/Alamy
In a call for Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer to back bold political reform including proportional representation, he said: “It will not be enough for the next government to tinker at the edges with democratic reform. It must embark on a wholesale renewal of democracy in this country. Failure to do so will have dire consequences in the decades ahead.”
For Tom Brake, director of the campaign group Unlock Democracy, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is “sounding the alarm in a measured but unequivocal manner”.
“This Government has used its temporary parliamentary majority to alter electoral systems, both with the introduction of photo voter ID and a change to the mayoral voting system,” he told this newspaper.
“These changes are expected to strengthen their hand electorally. Mr Greenberg believes this is the road to parliamentary dictatorship. To defend the demos against dictatorship, Unlock Democracy advocates a written constitution for the UK, entrenching rights and making them less vulnerable to an authoritarian executive.”
Voices against Voter ID
Greenberg’s unearthed paper comes amid an urgent question in Parliament on Tuesday, in which opposition parties challenged the roll-out of voter ID.
Local Government Minister Lee Rowley responded by denying that the roll-out was a failure and batted away questions about the need for greater support for local authorities having to implement the change.
Rowley suggested it did not matter if up to two million people without photo ID weren’t able to vote in the May elections – because lots of them probably weren’t going to vote anyway and there weren’t elections in every area this year.
Fewer than 21,000 people have applied for the free photo ID offered by councils so far, out of the two million estimated to need the certificates, the Guardian has reported. And with just two-and-a-half months to go before May’s local elections, fewer than 6% of those applying are under 25, despite young people already being under-represented on the electoral roll.
Labour’s Clive Betts held up his older person’s travel card in Parliament and noted that he would be able to use it to vote in May’s elections, but he wouldn’t if it was a young person’s card. “What has the Government got against young people?” he asked.
He suggested it was down to the Government trying to find “every reason to disqualify young people’s forms of ID” and added: “Is it because the govt doesn’t expect young people to vote for them?”
Labour’s Clive Efford claimed people without photo ID are the “least likely to vote Tory” and asked: “What is it that attracted the minister to this policy?”
Scottish National Party MP Alison Thewliss noted that one of the biggest challenges MPs face is getting people registered to vote at all and now ID is adding another barrier.
The minister repeatedly rejected the claim that two million people lack photo ID. But the figure comes from the Cabinet Office’s own research in 2021, showing that 4% of people lack recognisable photo ID, representing around 2.1 million potential voters.
The Lib Dems are calling for the roll-out to be halted and for the regulations to be immediately revoked.
The party’s spokesperson for local government, Helen Morgan, said: “The Conservative Government has taken away people’s unobstructed right to vote, and now are refusing to cancel these plans before it’s too late. The minister continues to evade and deny that there is even a problem, just weeks away from elections. It’s shameful.
“Voter ID regulations are nothing short of voter suppression. Liberal Democrats will stop at nothing to stop these unsavoury, Trumpian tactics that have no place in British democracy.”
OUR JOURNALISM RELIES ON YOU
Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.