There’s been a great deal going on these last few weeks, and though it may not have made the headlines, there are important constitutional changes going on right now.
Last week, in a statement the Cabinet Office quietly slipped out almost under the radar, the Government announced a significant decision on the future of electoral registration.
Until two years ago, the way this worked was that one person within a household could register everyone who lived there. This was a major benefit for younger voters, who could be registered for the first time by their parents, and also to university students living in halls of residence, who could be registered en masse at the time they enrolled.
But in 2013, the coalition Government introduced, for the first time, a requirement that each voter register on an individual basis. Eventually this would mean that anyone who had already registered under the previous system would be deleted from the electoral register. There was cross party agreement at the time that a change of this magnitude should be accompanied by a number of safeguards to ensure that nobody’s democratic right to vote was put in jeopardy.
On that basis, a lengthy transition period was agreed, allowing plenty of time for anyone who had been registered under the previous system to re-register individually. This would ensure that nobody who was already registered at the time the 2013 law was passed would be removed from the register in advance of this year’s General Election, and would then give Electoral Registration Officers up and down the country a further 18 months to complete the electoral register as far as possible.
This is more challenging than it sounds. In the first year of individual registration, there was a huge drop-off in the number of people who registered to vote – 1.5 million people. Thanks to data matching with Government departments, which made it possible to verify the names and addresses of a number of existing voters, 78% of people on the old register were automatically transferred to the new one. But in inner cities, the numbers were dramatically lower. In Islington, which I represent, the match rate was just 59% - the seventh lowest of all local authorities.
The reason for this is that there are certain groups which are much harder for local authorities to reach when trying to confirm their details. These tend to be young voters, students, ethnic minorities, private renters and poorer families. As someone who represents a diverse inner London community, my interest is in making sure that as many of my constituents as possible have the ability to exercise their democratic rights if they want to. Whether or not they vote for me is has nothing to do with it, as long as they have the opportunity to make that choice. That opportunity is denied them if their names are taken off the register.
Despite significant progress having been made towards maximising registration, there is still a long way to go. But the Government threw caution to the wind last week, announcing that the cut-off point for individual registration will now be brought forward by a year, to December 2015.
This is an enormously consequential decision in terms of democratic participation. For a start, it means that the new, truncated register will be in place before next year’s Mayoral election in London and the upcoming EU referendum. Both present hugely important choices to voters, potentially shaping the future of both the capital and the country as a whole for decades to come. The idea that we would be doing anything to stand in the way of voters exercising their right to have a say in these decisions beggars belief.
But the cut-off date is important for another, less immediately obvious reason. Early next year the Boundary Commissions are due to start their work re-drawing the constituency boundaries for the next General Election.
Because each constituency is required be of more or less the same size, and because size is based on a constituency’s electorate as opposed to its population, ending the transition period for individual registration before the electoral register is complete means that hundreds of thousands of voters risk being ignored by the next boundary review.
Whatever the Government says in public, the intent is clear. Overwhelmingly, lower rates of registration are concentrated in urban, deprived areas which just happen to vote Labour at election time. Hastily bringing forward the cut-off point for individual registration – an unnecessary move which was done against the advice of the independent Electoral Commission – smacks of partisan manoeuvring.
The framework for the next boundary is still in flux, despite being due to start in just a few months’ time. Within the Government you hear different things from different people on different days – sometimes we’re going to have 650 constituencies, sometimes 600 – and although I have repeatedly pressed Ministers to provide clarity on the rules for the review, this is doubtless just another can that will be kicked down the road until the last possible moment.
The accuracy of the electoral register is vital to the health of our democracy, affecting not just who gets to vote, but who even counts for the purposes of determining representation in Parliament. That the Government would play fast and loose with such important issues for narrow political advantage does not, to put it mildly, inspire confidence.