“Boiling a frog” or how our voting rights have been eroded by the Tories

by Paul Wheeler

If four years ago political commentators had suggested that millions of eligible voters would be arbitrarily removed from the electoral register or that the government would be introducing a system of voter identification at polling stations outlawed in Texas, they would have accused of paranoia.

Yet as we enter 2018 that’s precisely what’s happening in Britain – one of the world’s oldest democracies. In a classic Tory approach none of this has been announced as a public policy but in a combination of stealth and cock up we are heading to a fundamental erosion of long held voting rights.

Individual voting registration (IVR) was introduced in 2014 and sold as a way of democratising the registration process by allowing anyone to register to vote rather than relying on a self nominated (and usually male) Head of Household. The problem was that it relied on 350 local councils- the majority small district councils- to introduce this radical change at a time when their overall budgets were being dramatically slashed by central government..

The Electoral Commission, who were the cheerleaders for IVR,  could have learnt from Australia where IVR had been a feature of the electoral process for decades and relies on a comprehensive system of data tracking with government and housing agencies to maintain an accurate record (they even cross-reference to ensure that the recently deceased are automatically removed from the electoral register). They chose not to contact any of the relevant agencies in Australia presumably on the basis that Britain knows best.

Needless to say the introduction of Individual voter registration didn’t go well. Millions of forms were dispatched to individuals in a complex paper chase of which the only real beneficiaries were the Post Office and the suppliers of official stationary. Apart from a few London and metropolitan boroughs little attempt was made to cross reference the voter register with other official records to maintain an accurate electoral register. One example indicates the shambles of IVR as introduced in Great Britain. ‘Attainers’ – 16-17 year olds- had traditionally been included on the register by heads of households. Now no-one had responsibility for including them. The result was that the number of 16-17 years on the register collapsed in a large number of areas (over 50% in Liverpool). In Australia their inclusion on the register was the responsibility of schools and colleges –a sensible approach not even considered here.

The one reason the register did not reduce dramatically for the 2015 General Election was the sensible policy of ‘carry over’ – where those individuals already on the register who did not respond to the flurry of paperwork to confirm a voting right they already possessed- were retained on the electoral register. The new Tory Government now decided to move from cock up to conspiracy. So in the autumn of 2015, against the advice of the Electoral Commission, they instructed councils to remove all those voters ‘carried over’ from previous electoral registers. Approximately two million voters (remember that number) were removed by December 2015 – just in time for the forthcoming Parliamentary Boundary Review intended to reduce the number of Parliamentary Constituencies from 650 to 600.

Needless to say this culling of the electoral register was not evenly spread across the country. Urban areas with a large number of insecure private renters and a highly mobile population were particularly hard hit. Birmingham lost 19,000 voters, Liverpool 14,000 and just one London Borough – Lewisham lost 6000. The statistics behind IVR UK style are clear and cruel. If you are white, middle aged and a home owner you have a 90% chance of being included on the electoral register. If you are young, black, living in the inner city in private rented accommodation then the chances are less than 10%.

At a time when urban centres such as London, Manchester and Birmingham were gaining population they faced the ridiculous prospect of losing Parliamentary representation. Moreover as the young and poor are increasingly excluded there are huge implications for the justice system as potential jurors are only selected from those on the electoral register.

It is to our credit that the actual process of Parliamentary Boundary Redistribution is an independent process conducted by four Commissions (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). Yet this particular boundary review has been tainted by a reliance on a hugely inaccurate electoral register. If proof was needed we only need to look at the registered electorate for the June 2017 General Election. After a vigorous voter registration campaign the final tally was 46,843,896.

The Parliamentary Boundary Review, set in train barely 15 months earlier, was based on an electorate of 44,562,440. A difference of 2,281,240an awful lot of people to be hiding away and remarkably similar to the number of voters removed from the electoral registers prior to the Boundary Review deadline in December 2015.

Not content with damaging the fabric of voter registration and the neutrality of the Boundary Review process the Government have now moved on introduce a form of voter suppression which would be ruled illegal in most US States.

The issue of voter impersonation- someone using another person’s vote at a polling station- has always been a contentious one. Numerous examples of abuse led to the introduction of voter ID cards for elections in Northern Ireland. Yet, apart from the troubled London Borough of Tower Hamlets, there is no evidence of voter impersonation in the rest of Great Britain.

This has not stopped the Tories- using a largely evidence free report from the self styled ‘Corruption Czar’ Eric Pickles introducing a pilot scheme to require voter identification for the local elections in May 2018. The areas chosen – Woking, Watford, Gosport and Bromley – are hardly representative of modern Britain. Moreover the preferred methods of ID chosen – passports and driving licences- represent the harshest form of voter identification. Millions of eligible UK citizens possess neither. Other more simple and inclusive forms of voter ID such as voter’s date of birth (information already collated to determine eligibility for jury service) has been ignored.

Yet on the basis of this limited and unrepresentative pilot the Tories are determined to push through compulsory voter identification for the next General Election. This is a fundamental change on the basis of flimsy evidence and for a largely non-existent problem. Moreover the prospect of thousands of eligible voters being denied the right to vote at polling stations raises the prospect of numerous legal challenges to individual election results. A situation common in the US but up to now rare in this country.

And then there is Brexit. Our exit from the EU in March 2019 means the removal of EU citizens from the electoral register. Already there have been suggestions on the Tory backbenches and fringe organisations such as ‘Migration Watch’ to question the long standing rights of Commonwealth and Irish citizens to be included on UK voting registers.

Now is the time for MPs to assert their role as guardians of our democracy and demand a Speakers Convention on the threats to our franchise and voting rights. As a country we have drifted into a voluntary system of voter registration without any public discussion. Instead of the steady accumulation of the voter register, with ample time to check the validity of applications, we now have a ‘flash flood’ of millions of applications in the run up to General Elections which threaten to overwhelm cash strapped local councils and have huge implications on the composition of juries and the accuracy of Parliamentary and local authority boundary reviews.

In the last four years we have gone from a situation where our franchise and voting process were admired throughout the world to one where future elections may need international observers to ensure their fairness. One more for the list of how this Government have ruined our reputation abroad.

Paul Wheeler writes on local politics

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9 Responses to ““Boiling a frog” or how our voting rights have been eroded by the Tories”

  1. John P Reid says:

    It’s alright some students got to vote labour twice at the election.

  2. Vern says:

    I’m not sure how much hard evidence and fact has gone in to this piece versus the scare mongering, hearsay and the usual if’s and’s and maybes. Is your normal audience used to disinformation, happy for you to whip up hysteria and let you conveniently gloss over the boundary changes brought in under the Labour Government. It’s bloody lazy journalism and does the electorate and people who visit these pages a huge disservice in my opinion.
    And what have you got to lose if we tighten up on the regulations around voter registration and rely on something more than just quoting a date of birth? Additionally, the UK’s standing in the world will be unaffected by these introductions primarily because no one outside of the UK cares that much. I don’t give a hoot about the electoral process in other countries and I think 44,562,438 others don’t either.

  3. Tafia says:

    Everyone should have a biometric ID card. That would at a stroke eradicate people with two identities, more than one National Insurance number etc etc. The card should then be linked to the electoral database and as a result, nobody will be registered in more than one Constituency or registered as both a postal and standard voter. The ID card would also be your gateway to council services, the NHS etc etc.

    Landlords would have absolutely no excuse for renting properties to illegal immigrants – likewise unscrupulous employers, the non-entitled will be excluded from the benefits system (and from non-entitled NHS treatments), wanted criminals tracked down and apprehended easier, the whereabouts of persons considered dangerous (such as parolees and registered sex offenders) would be easier to monitor.

    Punishments for having fake identities, more than one NI number, voting twice, illegally letting properties, illegally employing people etc should be massively increased.

    Problem solved.

  4. It’s true that the Tories are taking measures to improve their chances of re-election, however the article misses the elephant in the room. Labour is not without its faults on this issue. It has been complicit in sustaining an electoral system that massively damages the electoral prospects of other parties.

    In 2017, the two largest parties, between them, had 82% of the vote in 2017, but until recently their vote share was much lower. In 2015, the two big parties received only 67%, in 2010 it was only 60%.

    And those figures are almost certainly inflated. Many vote Conservative or Labour, not for love of that party, but to try to keep the other party out. Many who would like to vote Lib Dem, Green or UKIP, choose Labour or the Tories, because they don’t want their vote to be wasted. If anyone doubts this, go on social media, and suggest that someone who opposes Brexit votes Lib Dem or Green, and you’ll almost certainly be told that to do so would “let the Tories in”, that the only way to beat the Tories is to vote Labour.

    In the last two years, I’ve made a big effort to get to know moderates in the Labour party. Broadly, I like them, but there’s one thing that frustrates me. When they had the chance to change our electoral system, far too many of them resolutely opposed it.

    I have no doubt that, if Labour one day splits, and those who are currently moderates in the Labour party no longer find the electoral system works for them, they’ll start supporting reform.

    How I wish more of them had the consistency to support electoral reform now, rather than only if it becomes in their interests to do to so. If they wait till then, I fear it’ll be when they have little power to do change it.

  5. Anon says:

    I’m sorry, but the Labour Party abandoned any shred of democratic credibility when it imposed the Lisbon Treaty on the British people
    The whole British population were robbed of their “voting rights” when that particular piece of political villainy was rammed down their throats.

    I would be all for Tafia’s suggestions – the problem is though, that ‘the state’ seems to create the problems, and the state always seems to provide the answers that result in my liberty being imposed upon somehow.

    But, let’s be honest here, Labour councils and MPs have long colluded in hiding the illegality of people exploiting the good will of the UK people.

    So, yes, register ’em all till the pips squeak; stamp ’em with a barcode if you like – those much reviled by Paul Wheeler “white, middle aged home owners” (who generally work, pay their taxes, and cause not much bother) will have a chance to see where their money is being wasted.

  6. James says:

    “The areas chosen – Woking, Watford, Gosport and Bromley – are hardly representative of modern Britain.”

    What on earth is that supposed to mean?

  7. paul wheeler says:

    Thanks for the feedback.

    Given I have quoted the registered electorate to the nearest individual not sure how much ‘hard evidence’ you need. We have chosen the worst possible form of IVR -spendng more and achieving less accuracy than other available versions

    This was not an article about electoral reform. Whatever system you use we need to ensure that those eligible to vote are on the register.

    For the record I am in favour of ID cards (biometric or otherwise). It’s the only way that Brexit can work too!

  8. Michael BG says:

    I wonder why Individual Voting Registration was needed? I remember lots of reminders being put through my parents’ letterbox each time the voter registration form collector called and the original form being lost and one being completed at the door. I feel that the collector only calls once now and if you are out you get no more reminders.

    Was there no way a person who had been missed off the register to register once an election was called? Why could both the old household registration be kept along-side people registering individually if they were missed off the register?

    If you are a student living in university accommodation would you even have any form of identity? I don’t remember taking my birth certificate with me to university! It is quite possible that their mobile phone would be registered at their home address not their university address. I suppose most students would have a debit card but it doesn’t give an address. I expect most students would go paperless and so there would be no need to keep their address up to date on their bank account.

  9. Ian says:

    Anyone who has canvassed door-to-door, particularly in large cities, ought to know how many register entries there used to be for people who have long since moved away, or who shouldn’t have been in the register in the first place. This article does itself no favours by ignoring this very real side of the matter.

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