On Thursday local elections will take place in many parts of the country. Local government and the vital public services they provide have been hollowed out by nine years of Tory cuts that have hit the poorest hardest. Voters will have a clear choice between the Tories, who offer more of the same failed austerity and cuts, or Labour, who will rebuild our country with investment in services and communities so they can thrive once again.
It is vital that we elect as many Labour Councillors as possible on 2 May to send a message to this Government that real change is needed and austerity must end. Sadly, those who missed the voter registration deadline last month will not be able to have their say on polling day because of the complicated and bureaucratic way we currently register to vote.
The Conservative Government believes that voting and registering to vote is a personal responsibility and under the system of individual electoral registration (IER), everyone has to register to vote online individually. The move away from household to individual registration in 2014, where one resident could sign everyone up to vote, was a huge change to the way we do elections. However, IER has not achieved what we were told it would and the additional burden for voters has affected registration rates and consequently voter turnout.
An estimated 7 million people are still not on the electoral register or not registered correctly, according to the Electoral Commission, and we continue to see disproportionately low levels of registration amongst mobile, marginalised and vulnerable voter groups. Those who are most impacted by individual registration include young people, people from privately rented accommodation and BAME groups. For example, 24% of black voters in the UK are not registered to vote.
Labour is committed to drastically increasing voter registration to ensure every eligible voter can have their say and unlike the Tories, we believe that it should be the responsibility of Government to do everything in its power to ensure that the electoral register is complete.
As part of our preparations for Government, we are considering a massive overhaul of the way voters can be registered to vote and will examine the use of government data to automatically place people on the electoral roll. This could happen when people are issued with a National Insurance Number or, for people already over 16, using data held by government departments like HMRC and the DVLA.
There are many successful examples around the world of this kind of automatic voter registration system. In Canada, the National Register of Electors contains records for approximately 25 million Canadians aged 18 and older who are qualified to vote. This is updated continually with information from Canada Revenue Agency, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, and National Defence, and as of November 2018, 93.8% of all eligible electors were included in the Register.
Closer to home in Germany, the local authority must include all eligible citizens on the voter registry. The voter lists are created automatically on the basis of the population registers of the registration offices and all those entitled to vote who have their main residence in the municipality are entered in the voters’ register.
There is widespread support for moving towards an automatic system. Claire Bassett, chief executive to the Electoral Commission, stated “that more automatic registration processes would greatly improve the system”. In parliament the Cross Party Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee also reaffirmed its previous view in 2015 that voters should “be registered to vote automatically, using data already held by the Government.”
However, it comes as no surprise that the Tories oppose measures that would make our democracy more accessible. Their flagship electoral policy is to introduce Voter ID, making it harder for people to vote.
This Thursday, ten local authorities across England will be taking part in pilots where voters will be required to present personal identification before casting their ballot at the polling station. These schemes were the focus of significant controversy when at least 350 citizens where denied their right to vote across five pilot areas when this was first trialled last year.
We know that Voter ID will have significant ramifications for our democracy. Three and half million citizens - 7.5% of the electorate - do not have access to photo ID.
Civil society groups and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have warned that Voter ID will have a disproportionate impact on voters from ethnic minority communities, older people, trans people, and disabled people. The Windrush scandal also demonstrated that it can be more difficult for some communities to provide official documentation than others. Yet this Government has ignored this advice and ploughed ahead with this dangerous policy.
The Government claims that Voter ID is designed to tackle electoral fraud in polling stations, which is a serious crime. However, these measures are clearly disproportionate when the Electoral Commission has made clear that there is no evidence of widespread electoral fraud in the UK. In 2017 when there were last national elections in the UK and more than 44 million votes cast, just one person was convicted. In 2018 there were just seven allegations of polling station impersonation, so far with no prosecutions, the latest published statistics show.
The choices between the Tories and Labour couldn’t be more different. We have a Conservative Government intent on trying to undermine our democratic right to vote versus Labour who want to expand democracy, ensuring that all voters who are entitled to vote get to cast it, so that government really is accountable to the many.