Ten million less voters and the Tories forever: the future of Britain's democracy?

The Coalition's constitutional reform plans are set to undermine Britain's balance of party political structures. A recent select committee report sets out the dangers and recommends how to avert them.
Stuart Weir
8 November 2011

We are entering a critical period of coalition government activism that could bring about long-lasting damage to the balance of our party political structures:  the scaling down of the House of Commons, radical boundary revision, a cap on donations to political parties, and the shift from the existing system of household to individual electoral registration (IER).  Taken together, these changes might very well shift the balance of power so decisively towards the Conservatives that they could become permanently in power at Westminster.

A report from the Political and Constitutional Reform select committee last week sets out in pretty sober language the dangers inherent in the government’s IER proposals and in Nick Clegg’s attitude to what will be a momentous change.

The key issue is not just a potential loss of 10 million voters – which is bad enough – but the uneven impact of the loss across different regions and different social groups.   A Democratic Audit briefing on its website states that the overall number of people registering will fall with the full introduction of IER from December 2015, given that the experience of Northern Ireland is likely to be replicated. Register entries fell by 10 per cent after IER was introduced there in 2002,; and the NI experience tells us that registration levels are likely to fall further “among young people and students, residents in large communal establishments, private sector tenants, those on lower incomes and members of ethnic community groups.”

Electoral officers and experts warned the committee that the loss could well amount to between 10-15 per cent in the “leafy shires” while a fall of up to 30 per cent in inner city areas is “somewhere near the mark”.  And on past, unfortunately patchy evidence, the people who are most likely to be disenfranchised will follow the pattern established in Northern Ireland – “predominantly poor, young and black” – people who are “more liable to vote Labour”.  A recent study for the Electoral Commission suggested that under-representation is higher than average among 17-24 year-olds (56 per unregistered), private sector tenants (49 per cent unregistered) and black and minority ethnic residents (31 per cent).

Labour in government began the move towards IER while remaining complacent about the current disenfranchisement of millions of eligible voters – 3.5 million was the estimate for England and Wales.  Harriet Harman was the only major party figure who worried about the effect on representation, for example presenting Operation Black Vote in 2005 with her own calculations that only 6 per cent of people in non-metropolitan areas were not on the electoral roll compared with 20 per cent in inner London; that only 2 per cent of owner-occupiers were not on the register as against 38 per cent of people in unfurnished private and council tenancies; and that only 2 per cent of the over-50s were missing as against 20 per cent of 20-24 year olds.

What is more surprising in Labour’s complacency is that the uneven spread of missing people adversely affects the number of seats they are likely to win.  The boundary commissions do not use  population size as a basis for drawing constituency boundaries, they use the number of registered voters.  Varying levels of completeness means that constituency boundaries will be redrawn on terms that unfairly disadvantage one party – Labour.

The select committee makes several significant recommendations that could improve the fairness of the impending legislation.  First, the Bill should not make registering to vote voluntary and a matter of “personal choice”,  but that people should be legally required to register, as in Northern Ireland; electoral officials gave evidence to the committee that compulsion increases registration.  Secondly that a full household canvass should take place in 2014 to ensure that the post-2015 boundary review takes place on the base that is as complete and fair as possible.  But that will cost a great deal of money and it is not at all clear that Clegg and his coalition partners will be willing to pay.

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