3 ways the government is threatening our democracy in the UK

Friends of the Earth's Head of Political Affairs, Dave Timms, explains how three bills currently going through parliament tell a frightening authoritarian tale.
  Published:  10 Dec 2021    |      3 minute read

1. The Elections Bill: a threat to free and fair elections

Imagine if somewhere in a library there is a beginner's guide to democracy. Free and fair elections would surely be the first line of the first page, and an independent elections regulator is the prerequisite to make that happen. Any government that tried to take away the independence of that regulator would be taking a big step away from democracy.

Yet the Elections Bill currently passing through parliament does exactly that. It gives the government the power to direct the priorities and strategy of the Electoral Commission, the independent body responsible for overseeing elections, ensuring democratic integrity and regulating political finance. The Home Secretary would also get the power to exclude whole categories of organisations (so called "third-parties" such as Friend of the Earth) from campaigning on issues of importance during elections.

Add to this, proposals to require ID to vote at elections. This change would disproportionately impact marginalised communities, making it harder for them to vote. With all of these proposals, we have a bill that undermines an electoral system already flawed by an unfair voting system.

2. The policing bill: an attack on our right to protest and the rights of nomadic communities

Democracy isn't just something that happens every four years. The ability to make our voices heard through protest, and to hold those with power accountable for their actions, is the lifeblood of democracy.

Those of us that don't own a newspaper, can afford to make 5-figure donations to political parties or have a secretary of state round for dinner, depend on being able to take to the streets, sometimes noisily, to raise awareness or demand action. Almost every recent advance our society has made has been accompanied by the sound of marching feet and chanting voices from votes for women and the right of same sex couples to marry, to Black Lives Matter and school climate strikes. The only people who gain from restrictions on the right to protest are those that already have power and wealth.

The Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill is designed to supress those freedoms, crack down on protest and criminalise nomadic communities.

Harsh sentences for non-violent actions, extensive police powers to restrict peaceful protests, a range of new offences, extensive stop and search, individual protest banning orders. The list has grown as the Bill has progressed, creating the most extensive attack on the right to protest in living memory. Take away our right to be noisy, inconvenient, annoying and disruptive citizens, and democracy withers.

Critics of the measures include the government's own human rights watchdog. Even senior former police officers say the Bill is “harmful to democracy.” International civil freedoms monitor Civicus has now placed the UK on its watchlist of countries which are seeing a rapid decline in civic freedoms alongside Belarus, Nicaragua and Afghanistan.

3. The Judicial Review Bill: a threat to justice for ordinary citizens

Being able to vote for who you want in the hope they form the government is clearly essential to democracy. Once elected it’s the rule of law that keeps us safe from an "elective dictatorship" – the ability of a government to do what it wants without limits or justice. The courts, independent judges and a justice system everyone can use should be our protection from the abuse of power by the state (and on the last of those criteria, it already falls far short).

The rule of law originated from the Magna Carta in 1215. Barons forced King John to accept he wasn't above the law and didn’t have absolute power. Since then, the government must obey the laws passed by parliament. Or at least it should.

Judicial Review is the means by which citizens can ensure the government and other public institutions such as councils obey the law and don’t abuse the power they hold. It’s Judicial Review that right now is allowing Friends of the Earth to challenge the government in court. We’re currently in the middle of a court case challenging the legality of the government’s decision to use over US$1 billion (around £750 million) of UK taxpayers’ money to back a giant gas project in Mozambique that's been linked to violence and instability with over £1bn of UK taxpayers money. But the Judicial Review Bill seeks to restrict the ability of citizens to secure justice by stopping or undoing the unlawful actions of the state. Ministers are also threatening measures to strike down court rulings they disagree with.

These three bills aren’t the limit of the threats to our democracy. The Nationality and Borders Bill would give the Government the power to strip people of their British citizenship without warning. And perhaps the Magna Carta of our own times is the Human Rights Act of 1998. Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab (who has previously said he didn’t support it and was author of a book criticising it) has now launched a full frontal attack on the Act, with a consultation on proposals to create broad exemptions for public bodies (such as councils) and put up additional barriers to the public bringing legal challenges using the Act.

Our democracy is being weakened before our eyes, benefiting those with power and wealth. Meanwhile planetary environmental crises are hurting the poorest, marginalised and vulnerable the most. This is not a coincidence. Protest, democracy, human rights, justice and the rule of law are all key to building a sustainable society that will enable all citizens to flourish and these principles must be defended.