The Government’s planned introduction of Individual Voter Registration was to be the subject of a special ‘opposition day’ debate in the House of Commons this week. Labour MPs are getting extremely excitable about the changes, shrouding what are really partisan fears in a cloak of concern about democracy. In the event, their debate was cancelled because of other urgent business, but the issue certainly isn’t going away.
For all of their recent hollering, legislation to introduce Individual Electoral Registration was actually passed by Labour in 2009. They accepted then that the present system of household registration is inadequate and inaccurate. It leads to entries being left on the register when they shouldn’t be there, and it disconnects most voters from the process by relying on a single ‘head of household’. It also undermines the compulsory nature of registration. Some Electoral Registration Officers say it is difficult to establish who is responsible for registering people in any given property, unless it is a single person household.
Individual registration should ensure everyone has to engage with the process, and return their own form. Since all parties recognise that this is a long overdue step in reducing electoral fraud, and the perception of it, it is a pity the Opposition are now making such hysterical statements about getting on with the job.
However, there are defects with the Government’s proposals. Their initial ‘white paper’ on reform suggested that electoral registration should in future be voluntary. There would remain an obligation on households – presumably with the same defects as now – to return a “Household Enquiry Form” asking who was there, but it would then be optional for each individual to register. Electoral Registration Officers would have no “stick” with which to encourage potential electors to put themselves on the electoral roll. his would have led to a less complete register, and the independent Electoral Commission said so in its response to the consultation.
Nick Clegg is clearly listening on this point, and has already said in the House of Commons that he is minded to change the proposals to reflect these concerns. The Parliamentary Policy Committee I co-chair has made a detailed submission to the consultation, highlighting the proposed ‘opt-out’ as a key flaw in the draft legislation. It looks like Liberal Democrat pressure may now succeed in getting it dropped. We would like to see a new legal obligation follow for individuals themselves to return their form, so everyone gets on to the electoral roll in future.
Electoral registration is about far more than the right to vote. It affects the functionality of the jury system, and the principle that people are tried by their peers. If only a select group chose to register (it might be disproportionately the white middle classes), you might find suspects tried not by their peers but by those whose economic and social position is generally considerably more advantageous.
Beyond the state, referencing agencies use the electoral roll as the basis for offering credit, without which many of the most vulnerable, low income households might not be able to spread the cost of the more expensive items – furniture, washing machines, and so on – that everyone has to buy at some point.
Removal of the “opt-out” is not the only safeguard we want to see put into the legislation on IER. To prevent any largescale drop off in the number of people who are registered, we want to see a full annual canvass carried out in 2014. There could and should be more opportunties for ‘hard-to-reach’ groups to be registered, as they encounter the state in other aspects of their lives, whether through schools and colleges or through the benefits system. There is clearly room for considerable improvement in registering service voters too, espeically since it is obviously easy to know who and where they are. And the Government also needs to look again at whether the first register based entirely on individual registration – due after the 2015 election – is the right one on which to predicate the next boundary review.
I am confident that a great many of these safeguards can and will be built into the new system. Labour MPs are simply wrong to say that there is some nefarious ploy at play here, and that the Liberal Party – responsible for extending the franchise in the first place – would conspire to exclude the poorest voters from the register. That would clearly be unacceptable, and no Liberal Democrat will stand by while it happens.
When we do secure changes to the legislation, it won’t be thanks to partisan rantings on the part of Labour MPs. They resisted the principled case for individual registration for a full six years after the Electoral Commission first recommended it in 2003, and now they want to slow it down even further. All because they seem to believe that Labour voters just won’t register. But with a compulsory system, and new avenues of access to the electoral roll, there is no reason to suppose we shouldn’t be able to ensure everyone keeps their vote.
Either way, if any political party approaches this issue with a view simply to protecting its own interests, rather than the broader democratic interest, ministers are unlikely to listen. Our Committee is meeting Mark Harper, the Minister ‘under’ Nick Clegg with responsibility for Political and Constitutional Reform, to discuss the Government’s white paper next week. Let us know if there is anything you’d like us to raise with him.
Together, we can achieve what Labour failed to put in place: an electoral register which is both accurate and complete. Doing that doesn’t require delay, it requires innovation and action, and there’s no reason not to start now.
Mark Williams is Co-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Political and Constitutional Reform Parliamentary Policy Committee, and MP for Ceredigion