When the Queen announced in parliament this week that the British government was planning legislation that would require voters to carry photographic identification, her words stirred up worries nine miles to the east, in the London borough of Newham.
Junaid Ali, organiser of the Hope for Humanity Food Bank, which operates from a rundown shopfront in the deprived, multicultural West Ham area of the borough, said families using the service on Tuesday told him they would struggle to find the documents voters are expected to need.
“A lot of the families do not have identification,” Ali said.
Such stories — allied with the near-absence of in-person voter fraud — have raised suspicions that the proposed legislation is an attempt to make it harder for some sections of Britain’s electorate to vote.
A study commissioned by the Cabinet Office and published on March 31 found that 9 per cent of UK adults lacked photographic identification that was still valid and had a recognisable photograph.
Ali said many people reliant on the food bank were citizens of Commonwealth countries such as Pakistan — who have the right to vote in the UK — but that many spent long periods without identity documents while the Home Office processed their visa and immigration applications.
“For asylum-seeker families, the ID is held by the Home Office,” Ali said.
The UK government’s move received backing from former US president Donald Trump on Tuesday who said the UK measures were “exactly” what the US should do. There have been widespread accusations that new voter identification laws across a swath of Republican-controlled states — including Georgia and Florida — are part of an attempt to stop black and other minority groups in America from voting.
Jessica Garland, director of policy and research for Britain’s Electoral Reform Society, the election-rights pressure group, queried why a crackdown on in-person voter impersonation was a priority for the government when it was a rarely recorded offence.
“There’s no evidence that there’s a problem that the policy is trying to solve,” Garland said. “We really think this could be quite an expensive distraction.”
Despite vocal opposition to the proposals, the government has so far refused to back down, perhaps raising the prospect of another embarrassing U-turn further down the line.
“Having photographic identification is ensuring a problem doesn’t arise,” Jacob Rees-Mogg told MPs on Thursday. “This country has an electoral system of which people can be proud and of which people can have confidence. We mustn’t allow that confidence to slip.”
The arguments surrounding voter identification have been familiar to Angela Wilkins, leader of the Labour party group on Bromley council, in south-east London, ever since the council hosted one of the pilots for the voter ID scheme at local elections in 2018.
The Electoral Commission, the UK elections watchdog, said after the pilot that the majority of voters had been able to meet the requirements, although some were turned away. It added there was no evidence the requirement significantly deterred people from voting.
Wilkins, however, said she believed the commission had underestimated how many people were put off.
“A lot of people didn’t even attempt to go and vote because they knew they couldn’t because they hadn’t got the right ID,” Wilkins said.
It is unclear, meanwhile, how far the proposed legislation would address issues raised by the UK’s biggest election fraud scandal of recent years, in the 2014 local elections in Tower Hamlets, a London borough that neighbours Newham.
That case — which led to the removal of Lutfur Rahman as the borough’s mayor — related mainly to false registrations of people with no right to vote and a range of other issues, including the exercise of unlawful religious influence over voters’ decisions by Muslim religious leaders.
The Tower Hamlets case took place while prime minister Boris Johnson was mayor of London. Johnson closely followed the case and after the ruling against Rahman in 2015 said: “I’m very glad that justice has taken its course and the cloud has been lifted from Tower Hamlets.”
But Johnson is also a longtime sceptic of ID cards. Writing in the Telegraph newspaper in 2004 as a Conservative MP, he said: “If I am ever asked, on the streets of London, or in any other venue, public or private, to produce my ID card as evidence that I am who I say . . . I will take that card out of my wallet and physically eat it.”
Garland said the fraud in Tower Hamlets had been caught and there had not been another similar case since.
“To introduce this measure for an entirely different kind of fraud . . . seems like the wrong lesson to be drawn from that,” she said.
It is not clear, either, whether the legislation will follow a key recommendation from the Electoral Commission — that councils should offer a free, official form of photo identification for those lacking other forms. Voters in Northern Ireland — where photographic identification has been needed since 2003, and whose experience the government has cited as evidence the proposals can work — are offered such a card.
The plans are also likely to encounter some political opposition when introduced to parliament. Libertarian-minded Conservative MPs are unhappy with the proposals; one described them as “the very sort of thing we used to tear pieces out of Labour for”. But any rebellion is unlikely to undermine the government’s 80-seat majority.
Ruth Davidson, the former leader of the Scottish Conservative party, described the plans as “total bollocks”, adding they were “a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist”.
She told ITV: “I think that given where we are and the year we’ve had, we’ve got real problems to solve in this country, and the idea that this is some sort of legislative priority I think is for the birds.”
The House of Lords is also likely to seek to amend the legislation. Liberal Democrat and Labour peers are particularly unhappy with the proposals.
Garland said the introduction of a free, official form of ID would be the “absolute minimum” required to make any system fair.
In West Ham, however, Ali said the new plans had simply added to the suspicions of his food bank’s already marginalised users about the government’s intentions towards them.
“They have concerns that it might be another way to check the data of people,” Ali said. “They’re quite scared.”
Additional reporting: John Burn-Murdoch in London and Lauren Fedor in Washington