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Electoral registration: the biggest political scandal you’ve never heard of

The coalition's changes to the electoral registration system will lead to a sick democracy.

The Electoral Commission calls it the "biggest change" to voting since the start of universal suffrage in 1928. What has attracted the attention of the independent Electoral Commission, and the ire of academics, pollsters, electoral registration officers, the Electoral Reform Society and, belatedly, the Labour Party, is the Conservative-led government's proposal to switch from a system of household registration of voters, which is vulnerable to fraud and error, to a system of individual electoral registration (IER), in which, crucially, it will no longer be compulsory for members of the public to co-operate with electoral registration officers.

It sounds technical and bureaucratic, perhaps a little dull and boring, too. The press isn't interested. It is yet to be debated in the Commons. But it will have a profound effect on general election results and, by extension, the future of British democracy. Put simply, the Tories, aided and abetted by the Liberal Democrats, are rigging the rules of the electoral system to make it easier for themselves to win parliamentary majorities after 2015.

Off the register

How so? The switch from households to individuals, coupled with the lack of enforcement, will lead to a sharp decline in the number of registered voters (as happened in Northern Ireland when the switch was made there, in 2002). It is estimated that at present 3.5 million people eligible to vote (or one in ten) do not register to do so. According to Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission, under voluntary IER, the electoral register could go "from a 90 per cent completeness that we currently have to 60-65 per cent" - an astonishing ten million or more voters could just fall off the register.

All of the empirical evidence suggests that those who tend not to register to vote are drawn disproportionately from the ranks of the young, the urban poor and ethnic minorities. These eligible voters, by complete coincidence, tend to support Labour. The partisan impact of IER is compounded by the government's plan to reduce the number of constituencies, and make them equal in size based on the number of registered voters.

Last month, Her Majesty's Opposition finally woke up to the threat. The Labour deputy leader, Harriet Harman, in her concluding speech to the party conference on 29 September, pointed out how the proposal is "going to push people off the electoral register - deny them their vote, deny them their voice. The numbers are going to be huge." The Tories, she said, "hope it will help them win the election".

The Cabinet Office minister Mark Harper responded by accusing Harman of hypocrisy and pointing out that Labour, in office, had backed the idea of IER. Conveniently, this misses the point. Critics of IER are not objecting to the shift away from the outdated and patriarchal household system of voter registration; they are objecting specifically to the shift away from compulsion and the inevitable disenfranchisement of the most marginalised voters.

The Tories have form here. According to a paper published in 1992 by the political scientists Iain McLean and Jeremy Smith, the introduction of the poll tax in April 1990 accounted "for slightly more than one-third of the estimated one million people shortfall between the electoral register and the [official] estimate of the qualified population". The authors later concluded that this "shortfall" - of poorer, urban, Labour-leaning voters - cost Neil Kinnock the 1992 general election.

Ministers argue that the move from compulsion to volition should be uncontroversial. "It is not compulsory to vote in our elections and nor will we compel people, so it is sensible that registering to vote should also be a choice for the individual concerned," says the coalition's white paper, published in June. However, most of the academic experts on voter registration disagree. "You have only to look at the US to see where that approach leads you," says McLean, a professor of politics at Oxford. "Look at the flagrant disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida in the run-up to the 2000 election."

Sharp Tonge

Jonathan Tonge, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool, is scathingly critical of individual electoral registration. "It will be a disaster in terms of shrinking the electoral register and reducing the numbers of people voting in general elections," he tells me. "If you diminish the number of people registered to vote, you delegitimise the outcome of elections."

Ministers talk incessantly of "liberties" and "rights". But with those go responsibilities and duties. As Ed Miliband has argued and as the
academics agree, registering to vote, like filling in a census form, is a "civic duty", not a lifestyle choice. What we are witnessing is a brazen attempt to gerrymander the electoral system, a cynical exercise aimed at keeping the Conservatives in power for a generation.

Miliband, who is said to be "steamed up" about IER, is planning an Obama-style registration drive in universities and colleges; both the Labour leadership and Ken Livingstone's mayoral campaign have been in discussions on this subject with Arnie Graf, the Chicago-based community organiser who mentored a young Barack Obama in the 1980s. The Electoral Commission will set out its formal response to the white paper in the next fortnight. The coalition is planning to introduce legislation in the new year. Time is of the essence. Miliband must act swiftly if he is to drive this seemingly technical dispute to the top of the political agenda and cut through to the voters.

After the August riots, David Cameron spoke of a "sick society". Yet his own reform of the electoral system will lead to a sick democracy, with fewer registered voters and lower turn­outs. It is the biggest political scandal you've never heard of.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 10 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The next great depression

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.