Local GovernmentSpeeches

John McDonnell – 2022 Speech on Voter ID at Elections

The speech made by John McDonnell, the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, in the House of Commons on 12 December 2022.

The debate so far has been superb and I want to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) on the expert way in which she completely took apart the Government’s arguments. I was 20 years in local government before I came here, and the last exercise in voter suppression was the poll tax. I was in local government at the time—I was chief executive of the Association of London Authorities, which represented both Conservative and Labour councils—and we explained to the then Government what the effect of introducing the poll tax legislation would be. It might well have been advertised as a fairer way of funding local government and collecting resources, but we argued that the Government needed to be careful because it could also possibly result in voter suppression. Naively, we did not think that that was an exercise being deliberately undertaken by the Government.

Although the poll tax brought down Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister, it ensured that a Tory Government were elected in 1992 because of what happened in many constituencies. Take my own constituency as an example, where 5,000 mainly working-class people dropped off the register. As a result, there were four recounts and I lost by 54 votes. I know every one of them and I visit them every so often, but there we are. That was an exercise that was done for one reason but actually had a sub-reason, which was voter suppression, and unfortunately I think that is what is happening today.

My second point is that, because of my local government background, I know that there is a long tradition that we listen to our electoral administrators. They are the one group of people in an authority whose professionalism we do not contest, because they serve all political parties, and they do so independently and to the best of their abilities. Most of them have limited staff and limited resources, and they are not particularly well paid either. Survey after survey shows the majority have no confidence that they can deliver this change in time for the local elections. First, they do not have the staff in place because of cutbacks. Secondly, they do not have time to have their computer systems properly tested and operating effectively. Thirdly, they do not have time to launch campaigns informing people of what they need to do to register. Even if they launch a campaign and it is sufficiently successful, the prediction is that anything up to 16% of the electorate might apply but there will not be the staff to administer it.

We should listen to the constitution unit’s report: this is an accident waiting to happen. Just in administrative terms, whatever the political motivations, this policy is not supportable and is not needed, as has been demonstrated by speech after speech. Unfortunately, not only is it a policy that will ensure some people do not get the right to vote and will cause conflict and contests at individual polling stations, but it is a policy that people will come to regret. It smacks of the dangerous dogs legislation, on which we cannot find anyone who supported it or promoted it.

My only reason for speaking in this debate, apart from my local government experience, is so that when people examine this legislation in six, 12 or 18 months’ time, or in the years ahead, I will be on the record as speaking out against it. I think this is a disaster waiting to happen.