“Electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic,” was how the presiding judge described the postal vote abuse in Birmingham in 2005. With respect, m’lud, it was no such thing. I say this with some feeling, having acted as an election observer in two actual, literal banana republics – Ecuador and Nicaragua. In neither country would a Birmingham-style racket have been possible, because both make voting contingent on the presentation of an identity card known as a cédula.
A form of mandatory identification is normal in most of the world. The United Kingdom is an outlier. Or, rather, Great Britain is an outlier – Northern Irish voters are required to present photo ID when voting and, according to the Electoral Commission, 99 per cent of them do so without the slightest inconvenience.
Why not bring England, Scotland and Wales into line with other democracies? What could possibly be the objection to requiring voters to demonstrate that they really are who they say they are?
Labour maintains, with a straight face, that “requiring voters to produce photo ID risks denying millions of electors a vote”. Apparently, people can’t be trusted to produce the same kind of basic verification that they need when, say, picking up a parcel from the post office.
“The Government should be doing all it can to ensure a high turnout”, says Cat Smith, the Shadow Minister for Electoral Engagement. Even if this were true – and I’d have thought the integrity of the process matters more than the numbers – why assume that making it easier to vote will boost participation?
The last Labour government tested that theory to destruction. As well as making postal voting easier, it experimented with telephone voting, e-voting and the placing of polling stations in shopping centres. Despite all such schemes, turnout continued to fall.
Or, perhaps, because of them. It is at least arguable that these initiatives devalued the democratic process. If you have to vote in person or to offer a valid reason for a postal or proxy ballot, a certain ceremony is involved. You are made to feel that your vote is a thing of moment. But if you can fill in a ballot form while half-watching The Voice, the whole procedure is cheapened.
Voting is hard to justify in coldly transactional terms: the chance that your particular ballot will make a difference is negligible. We vote, in general, because we feel we ought to. Democratic engagement is part of our civic duty, like reporting crimes or supporting charities. Dilute the sense of formality and you dilute the sense of obligation.
As well as requiring photo ID, many countries mark voters’ thumbs with ink that lasts for 24 hours. That, too, tends to bolster a sense of civic engagement. The Nicaraguan election I monitored was the 2006 poll which saw the return of Daniel Ortega and his baleful Sandinistas. Flying back via Miami, I found myself on a plane full of grumpy expatriates who had returned home to vote for the losing conservatives. There were three young men on the flight who carried the stigma of un-inked thumbs, and who were the subject of waspish remarks all the way to Florida. Perhaps there is something to be said for a visible sign that you have done your bit.
Labour can’t actually believe that Britons would be deterred by a system that even the most indigent and illiterate Nicaraguans are able to navigate with ease. The truth is that that party has opposed every anti-fraud measure with the same tired arguments. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Labour has no interest in curbing impersonation.
Why not? Perhaps because almost all the cases involving organised dishonesty have been in Labour areas. The Electoral Commission lists 16 localities where fraud has been found to be widespread: Birmingham, Blackburn, Bradford, Burnley, Calderdale, Coventry, Derby, Hyndburn, Kirklees, Oldham, Pendle, Peterborough, Slough, Tower Hamlets, Walsall and Woking. Two of these areas are marginal and one (Woking) leans Tory; the other 13 – including Bradford, Birmingham and Tower Hamlets, where the most egregious swindles have occurred – are strongly Labour.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Labour actively encourages malpractice. It’s simply that all human beings are capable of focusing on what they want to see and blocking out what they don’t. I’m sure Labour MPs have genuinely convinced themselves that electoral fraud is negligible, and that turnout is the more important issue.
If our objective truly were to raise turnout, though, the answer would be to make elections matter more. We would devolve more power to local authorities. We would make more use of referendums, locally and nationally. We would encourage open primaries. We would strengthen Parliament vis-à-vis the executive. We would democratise our second chamber. We would make quangos accountable to MPs.
All of these things can be done in parallel with measures to prevent fraud. The ballot can be made more significant and more secure at the same time. Indeed, the one depends upon the other.
Daniel Hannan is Member of the European Parliament for South-East England and a Member of the Bow Group's Parliamentary Board