The first day of the first National Conservatism conference in central London was hardly without news. Whether it was Suella Braverman tacitly setting out her stall for the next Tory leadership contest, or repeated rounds of protesters interrupting speakers and shouting “fascist” at sitting or former cabinet ministers.
But perhaps the most extraordinary moment came when the former business secretary (and now TV host) Jacob Rees-Mogg addressed his party’s recent changes to voting law, which now, for the first time, requires voters to show a form of ID in order to vote.
“Parties that try and gerrymander end up finding their clever scheme comes back to bite them – as dare I say we found by insisting on voter ID for elections. We found the people who didn’t have ID were elderly and they by and large voted Conservative, so we made it hard for our own voters and we upset a system that worked perfectly well.”
Rees-Mogg’s comments are an extraordinary admission. Here was an MP – who just spent three years as a cabinet minister – openly conceding that a sitting government had hoped to dampen turnout among non-Tory voters.
The Rishi Sunak government has always denied that and will continue to do so. But Rees-Mogg’s words, and the manner in which he said them, were revealing. They epitomised the wrong-headed psychology of today’s Conservative Party. Rather than embracing extensions of the franchise, as the party has done to its advantage throughout its history, the Tories are now fighting democracy itself.
Rees-Mogg was responding to the news, reported in the Telegraph, that Keir Starmer intends to give the vote to 16-year-olds and EU citizens with settled status should the party win power at the next general election; he appeared to be claiming that such plans amounted to “gerrymandering”.
The voter extensions being mooted by the Labour Party cannot be so described. Gerrymandering is a form of election-rigging, the drawing of a boundary in order to advantage an incumbent party. Extensions of the franchise, by contrast, equate to more democracy, not less; to fresh injections of democratic energy into the system, not fewer.
[See also: Jacob Rees-Mogg’s GB News payday]
What the Conservatives have done with voter ID, a solution in search of a problem, is to restrict the number of people able to exercise their democratic rights. What Labour might do is extend the franchise by millions. If this is gerrymandering, then so too were the historic extensions of the franchise to women and working-class men.
Many Conservatives criticised those changes at the time in similar terms. It isn’t hard to imagine transplanting Rees-Mogg back to that age and to hear his particular voice saying the same things. Unfortunately for the Conservative Party, as the “NatCon” conference shows, it has too many Rees-Moggs, and no Disraelis.
Wise parties absorb extensions of the franchise, as Disraeli did. They bend with the facts of their age. They adapt. They capitalise. That is how the Conservative Party not only became the party of women for nearly all of the 20th century but for a significant proportion of the working class too.
The argument for franchise extension, such as Starmer is reportedly proposing, is strong. A new permanent working class was created when the Tony Blair government opened the UK’s labour market to the citizens of Europe’s accession states in 2004. Many of these people now have settled status, alongside other EU citizens. The citizenship process they need to endure to vote is expensive and arcane. We have, living among us, millions of fellow tax-payers with little say over their rights. Extending the franchise to those under 18 would, meanwhile, help rewire our politics, which is tilted to the benefit of the old and propertied.
Where the franchise should begin and end is a matter of legitimate debate, and people may disagree as to where the line is drawn. It isn’t unreasonable for the Conservative Party to fear reform, just as Labour was concerned about voter ID. It would be better if, as with the great franchise extensions of the 19th and early 20th centuries, major changes to electoral law were done on a cross-party basis. But it is wide of the mark to describe Starmer’s mooted plans as “gerrymandering” and to equate them with voter ID, a voter suppression tactic that Rees-Mogg only regrets for suppressing the wrong voters.
At NatCon, much of the rhetoric has been eccentric. In one sense, talk of gerrymandering is apt. It invokes the United States, where this conference had its genesis. The fusion between American and British radical conservatism was plain to see and hear in the conference hall. But British Tories ought to be wary. American conservatism, as frenzied as it has become, can exist and flourish because American society is so deeply polarised. In the US, the public square has all but vanished.
If the past year has taught us anything, the UK is not in the same place. The British public can still be moved by political argument and by events – and when they are moved, they move quickly. Decrying the “intelligentsia”, attacking the “managerial class” and “cultural Marxism”, stoking conspiracy theories, and parroting US-infused conservative talking points can spell only disaster for a Conservative Party that must have something to say on the actual issues exercising British voters: schools, hospitals, the dire state of public services, a housing crisis. On that, for all of the fever at NatCon, there was nothing.
[See also: The Left Power List]