Voter registration plans need to be rethought, report says

Millions could be saved from falling off electoral register.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has today published a report into the government's reforms to voter registration, suggesting that key parts of the legislation need to be rethought.

The initial proposals, to implement a system of Individual Electoral Registration (IER), were widely seen as a welcome move away from "head-of-household registration", thought to be out of date and prone to fraud. However legislation currently going through the House of Commons also plans to abolish the annual canvass of households, allowing potential voters the ability to 'opt-out', and removing the necessity to co-operate with electoral registration officers (EROs).

Mehdi Hassan, writing in the New Statesman last month, argued that the legislation as it stands would produce a "sick democracy, with fewer registered voters and lower turn­outs" adding "It is the biggest political scandal you've never heard of." And the Electoral Reform Society claimed that "the government was making it possible for citizens to 'opt out' from democracy," potentially wiping millions (of largely Labour leaning voters) form the electoral register.

Signs that the government was rethinking the more controversial aspects of its reforms materialised in October when deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he was "minded to change these provisions" in the face of accusations of political gerrymandering. The Committee's report goes further by supporting the continuation of the annual canvass and the ability to penalise non-compliance.

Welcoming the report, Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society said:

This is welcome reading for anyone interested in our democracy. Westminster was sleepwalking towards a catastrophic drop in voter registration. We're pleased politicians have finally woken up to the problem. These missing millions are avoidable, and the government must now take heed.

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Europe's elections show why liberals should avoid fatalism

France, Germany and the Netherlands suggest there is nothing inevitable about the right's advance.

Humans are unavoidably pattern-seeking creatures. We give meaning to disparate events where little or none may exist. So it is with Brexit and Donald Trump. The proximity of these results led to declarations of liberalism's demise. After decades of progress, the tide was said to have unavoidably turned.

Every election is now treated as another round in the great duel between libralism and populism. In the Netherlands, the perennial nativist Geert Wilders was gifted outsize attention in the belief that he could surf the Brexit-Trump wave to victory. Yet far from triumphing, the Freedom Party finished a distant second, increasing its seats total to 20 (four fewer than in 2010). Wilders' defeat was always more likely than not (and he would have been unable to form a government) but global events gifted him an aura of invincibility.

In France, for several years, Marine Le Pen has been likely to make the final round of the next presidential election. But it was only after Brexit and Trump's election that she was widely seen as a potential victor. As in 2002, the front républicain is likely to defeat the Front National. The winner, however, will not be a conservative but a liberal. According to the post-Trump narrative, Emmanuel Macron's rise should have been impossible. But his surge (albeit one that has left him tied with Le Pen in the first round) suggests liberalism is in better health than suggested.

In Germany, where the far-right Alternative für Deutschland was said to be remorselessly advancing, politics is returning to traditional two-party combat. The election of Martin Schulz has transformed the SPD's fortunes to the point where it could form the next government. As some Labour MPs resign themselves to perpeutal opposition, they could be forgiven for noting what a difference a new leader can make.

2016 will be forever remembered as the year of Brexit and Trump. Yet both events could conceivably have happened in liberalism's supposed heyday. The UK has long been the EU's most reluctant member and, having not joined the euro or the Schengen Zone, already had one foot outside the door. In the US, the conditions for the election of a Trump-like figure have been in place for decades. For all this, Leave only narrowly won and Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than her opponent. Liberalism is neither as weak as it is now thought, nor as strong as it was once thought.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.