By Cat Smith, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement & MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood.
For generations policy makers and local authorities have failed to tackle the pervasive discrimination and injustices faced by the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) people in their everyday lives.
I am concerned that the Government’s plans to introduce a requirement for mandatory photographic ID to vote at the next General Election will only worsen the already low levels of voter turnout and high levels of socio-economic exclusion already experienced by the GRT people.
The normalisation of this racism unfortunately still happens across the UK. As Labour’s Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement, I am more than aware of the blatant racism and discrimination fostered across society, shamefully including by some politicians. Indeed, a report by the Women and Equalities Committee found that: ‘while many inequalities have existed for a long time, there has been a persistent failure by both national and local policy-makers to tackle them in any sustained way.’
This discrimination has led to widespread political disengagement by the GRT people, and understandably so. I get it. For as long as your community continues to be underrepresented in positions of power and faces daily discrimination, I understand why you might choose not to vote. While there are no official statistics on voter turnout among the GRT people, the Traveller Movement confirms turnout is very low, more so than for other minority groups.
But instead of working to break down the barriers faced by the GRT people and encourage widespread democratic participation, the Conservative Government is putting barriers in your way. The Government’s Voter ID policy is set to lock millions of minority groups out of democracy, with a particular impact on ethnic minorities such as the GRT people. Indeed, ample evidence from across the world demonstrates that forcing voters to bring photographic ID to the polling station just makes it harder for people to vote. This is exactly why civil rights groups across America have been fighting tirelessly to overturn suppressive Voter ID laws for years.
These plans have been put in place to supposedly combat voter fraud, with Ministers justifying the policy as a method of reducing voter impersonation and “safeguarding democracy”. In reality, these laws offer a solution without a problem. Voter impersonation is incredibly rare. In 2019, a year with a high turnout general election, the UK saw just one conviction for impersonation out of over 59 million votes cast.
And the dangerous consequences of this policy for GRT people have not been considered by the Government. During the pilot schemes for this policy, the Equalities Impact Assessment failed to consider the plight of GRT people. Such consultation would have undoubtedly exposed the discriminatory reality of this change to our laws. Indeed, people from ethnic minority groups are less likely than the general population to carry photographic ID, with anecdotal evidence from the Traveller Movement suggesting many within the GRT community don’t hold ID. It remains unclear whether an Irish passport will be accepted as adequate proof.
Whilst the Government has pledged to provide a free ‘local elector ID’ for any voter who does not have photographic identification, such ID is supplied by local authorities. These relationships can already be difficult for many reasons. GRT people have low turnout rates in the first place and local authorities have failed across the board to introduce robust policies and procedures to protect the rights of GRT people. For many, collecting this free ID to vote is not an option.
And the Conservatives cannot claim to be oblivious to the concerns about Voter ID. Since this policy was first announced in December 2016, the Government has received multiple warnings from charities, civil society figures and campaign groups that mandatory voter ID, if rolled out nationally, could pull up the drawbridge for millions of voters. The Independent Equality and Human Rights Commission notified the Government that Voter ID will have a disproportionate impact on voters with protected characteristics, particularly ethnic minority communities, older people, trans people and people with disabilities.
Three and a half million people - 7.5% of the electorate - do not have access to any form of photo ID.
Voting, whether that be at local or national level, is the fundamental vehicle to representation, and change. No one should be denied their vote based on whether they carry a form of expensive photo ID.
Operation Traveller Vote carries out vital work in trying to encourage GRT people to turn feelings of hopelessness and exclusion into voting. Representation for GRT people is vital. Indeed, the recent election of Eileen Flynn as the first Irish Traveller to stand in the Irish Seanad is a welcome and significant step forward.
But, as GRT people continue to fight for representation, the Conservatives are forcing through a policy which risks locking the community out of voting.
The introduction of Voter ID would be a step backwards in UK democratic history.
We must not ignore these warnings, but instead learn from the plethora of personal stories and undeniable data about the discriminatory impact of these voter suppression tactics.
And instead of turning away from voting, it is policies such as these which should motivate us to push for change. Labour will continue to fight against the introduction of this policy and encourage those from the GRT community who are able to raise their concerns with local councillors and MPs, to do so.