Why we should worry about electoral reform

Change to our electoral system is apparently the most talked about subject amongst MPs in private, as slipped out during prime minister’s questions, but it’s not something they debate openly. Maybe they think they’ll appear self-indulgent and solipsistic if they publicly air their concerns about reducing the number of MPs or maybe they think voters shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads over the voting system.

However, I think we should be worrying our little heads (pretty or ugly, or the finest oxymoron known to humanity ‘pretty ugly’) a great deal over the potential effects of the proposed reforms to voter registration and constituency boundary changes.

The Electoral Commission, who independently oversee our voting system, have long been in support of the proposal first put forward under Labour to change the registration of voters from the current household system to individual electoral registration (IER). Basically instead of your mum filling out the form you have to do it yourself.  There are many good reasons to do this, including reducing the opportunity for fraud and fostering a sense of individual civil responsibility in the act of voting.

However the white paper setting out the government’s plans released in June this year, dropped this little unexpected bombshell: ‘It will be a matter of choice for the individual if they wish to register’ nicely hidden amongst yawn-making detail about what the bits of paper might look like.

Last week the Electoral Commission gave evidence to a House of Commons committee on IER and raised serious concerns over the potential drop in voter numbers should registration change from being compulsory to voluntary.

During general elections about 65% of people can be bothered to trudge up the road to their nearest scout hall to demonstrate their democratic rights and it’s not unreasonable to assume that the 35% that currently don’t bother to vote, will not bother to register either if it becomes voluntary.

There’s already an estimated 10% of the eligible population who aren’t registered and they include around half of 18-24-year-olds and nearly a third of ethnic minorities and others from socially excluded groups.  It’s a logical conclusion that should a further 35% choose not to register they’ll be largely from the same sorts of people. In other words, those most likely to vote Labour.

It’s not just voter numbers that will be affected by a drop in registration, the electoral roll is also used to call people for jury service, meaning that our courts could become much less representative of the wider population. So the ‘socially included’ will be deciding not only who governs but also who goes to prison.

Politicians also use the electoral roll for canvassing, so those not registered won’t even be approached for their views. This doesn’t sound like democracy to me.  The current cabinet is already an example of the wealthy legislating in favour of the wealthy, let’s not give them the voting system and the courts too.

IER is due to be implemented before the next election in 2015.  Nick Clegg has already announced that the household survey scheduled for 2014 has been cancelled ‘to save money’.  This means that the newly drawn up boundaries intended to reduce the house of commons from 650 to 600 MPs will be based on the number of voters registered in the 2015 election.

It’s already been acknowledged that the Lib Dems will suffer the most under the new boundaries being proposed, with their vote diluted across constituencies.  If, as predicted, Labour lose a large number of potential voters through opting out of registration (and they can blame themselves for alienating a great many of them under New Labour), then the 2020 election will be like shooting fish in a barrel for the Conservatives.

Electoral reform? It sounds more like gerrymandering to me. The legal requirement to register should stay and it wouldn’t hurt to make voting compulsory too instead of rearranging the deckchairs on democracy.

Keren Suchecki
Keren Suchecki lives in Bristol and works in community regeneration


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