This letter was first published in the Independent.
Those of us who believe in a free and fair politics must stand up and be counted wherever we see an affront to democratic norms. That’s why I left Labour’s front bench.
Last week I left my role championing democracy in the shadow cabinet. But not because I have any less passion and fire for democracy. In fact, having spent five years in the post after being appointed by Jeremy Corbyn in 2016 I am even more wedded to the cause of creating a true democracy where everyone’s voice counts – both in society at large and around the globe, and within the Labour Party.
And the fight for democracy starts right here in the UK.
Later this week, world leaders will gather virtually at Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy. The US president convened the gathering in response not just to Donald Trump’s apparent refusal to recognise the US election result last year, but more widely to a dwindling of democracy. More and more nations have succumbed to authoritarianism, tweaked vital protections for minorities out of their constitution or bent the fundamental rules of democracy. Boris Johnson will likely be there and his fellow presidents and prime ministers will have to look hard at his screen to find any trace of shame as he talks of his love of freedom while introducing new laws at home that will constrict democracy.
This government’s Elections bill is an affront to freedom. It contains clauses that will introduce voter ID, disenfranchising thousands of the very people whose marginalised voices ought to be heard most urgently: the young, the old, and people of colour.
It will extend the first-past-the-post voting system that means the precious votes of millions of citizens have precious little impact on the outcome of the election.
And it will tinker with the make-up of the Electoral Commission, the organisation that ensures elections are fair and free, to ensure the ruling party has a hand in the way they are elected. The Tories want to mark their own homework, just as they did over the Owen Paterson affair, and we all saw how successfully that turned out. Boris Johnson’s government was caught out over parliamentary standards. Thankfully they were stopped from creating their own rules – they must be stopped from ramming the Elections bill into law, too. The Defend Democracy Coalition of campaign groups, of which I am a supporter, is determined to do just that.
But those of us who believe in a free and fair politics must stand up and be counted wherever we see unfairness or an affront to democratic norms. That’s why I had to walk away from a job I loved on Labour’s front bench. Keir Starmer’s failure to reinstate Jeremy Corbyn to the Parliamentary Labour Party when he has been readmitted to the party at large is not the action of a democrat but of a leader fuelling factional strife at the expense of good party governance and goodwill among our massive membership.
And Labour ought to be leading the work to strengthen our democracy. Opposing the Elections bill is not enough. We must lead the conversation, embrace a new chapter for our country, and endorse a change to the voting system to ensure everyone’s vote truly counts.
Labour’s apparent contentment with the status quo is disappointing. The Tories’ attempts to roll back democracy in 2022 are worse.
Joe Biden’s got a second part to his Summit for Democracy planned for 12 months from now. Then leaders will review progress and consider how they’ve fared in defending free politics. If Boris Johnson is there in 2022, he will have to admit that he contributed to the withering of global democracy via his government’s Elections bill. Let’s hope that when the second element of the Summit for Democracy rolls around, the UK is represented by a Labour prime minister who doesn’t just talk of democracy but acts to ensure ours is the gold standard.
Cat Smith is Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood.