While most of our free and fearless press tries to limit the damage to Theresa May and her less than totally merry band, and takes the scandal of the Windrush Generation off the front pages, the hint of racism is proving difficult to mask after the inconvenient introduction by the Observer of a story about another highly divisive measure - this time on the exercising of democracy itself. And the impression given is deeply unfortunate.
Voter suppression is one of those live rail issues: it is somewhere politicians have been most reluctant to go, and with good reason. Attempts to disenfranchise part of the population inevitably smacks of the era of Jim Crow in the southern United States. Those disenfranchised were inevitably African-Americans; only with the 1965 Voting Rights Act was the racism of Jim Crow finally shown the door.
But now, hard on the heels of the Windrush Generation scandal, has come something that sounds horribly like Jim Crow in another guise. In another example of what looks ominously like the making of policy by the Murdoch and Rothermere press, the Tories’ plans to force voters in next month’s local elections to provide ID before they are allowed to vote have come under fire, for their implicit racial bias.
This is not mere scaremongering: as the Observer report tells, “the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has written to the Cabinet Office minister David Lidington, raising its serious concern that the checks will deter immigrants and others from participating in the democratic process”. Why might that be?
“Under the new government voting rules, being trialled in several local authorities at the 3 May local elections, people will be asked at polling stations to produce documents proving their identity - such as a passport or driving licence - before casting their vote. Currently, no such proof is required. The Windrush scandal has highlighted how many who came to this country from the Caribbean, mainly in the late 1950s, have struggled to prove their British citizenship because the authorities failed to register them or destroyed their landing cards, or because they have never applied for documents such as passports”.
Anyone who the authorities failed to register, and who never applied for a passport or needed to drive a car, would fall foul of the new law. That leads directly back to the Windrush Generation - who were British when they came to the UK, and if they arrived before 1972, are therefore still British now. Hence the taint of racism.
The EHRC’s legal officer has highlighted those likely to be affected: “The Commission is concerned that the requirement to produce identification … will have a disproportionate impact on voters with protected characteristics, particularly older people, transgender people, people with disabilities and/or those from ethnic minority communities. In essence, there is a concern that some voters will be disenfranchised as a result of restrictive identification requirements”. That’ why the Sun and Mail are keeping schtum.
And that’s why this stirs memories of Jim Crow. Coming on the back of Theresa May and Amber Rudd presiding over a Home Office prepared to deport British Citizens because, effectively, they were black, it looks very bad - because it is very bad.
We are seeing discrimination sneaked in by the back door. And that’s not good enough.