Anxiety over voter fraud must not stifle electoral registration

By rushing the implementation of the new scheme, the government risks leaving millions off the register.

This week, the Electoral Commission released proposals to clamp down on electoral fraud, requiring voters to show photographic ID at polling stations. Sensible measures to tackle fraud are welcome, but we should be careful not to further exacerbate the already woefully low levels of democratic engagement. There is real concern that the government’s current plans will make things worse. 

The Electoral Commission themselves say there is no evidence to suggest that electoral fraud is widespread in the UK and there have been only a handful of convictions. Yet, we know that at the last general election, only 44% of young people voted. Millions of eligible voters are not even on the electoral register, which means they can’t vote and are not represented in the drawing of political boundaries. The 2011 Electoral Register, the last that can be directly compared with census data, showed the huge disparity in representation for different groups on the register. Around half of 19-24 years olds were not registered, compared to 6% of those aged over 65. Fewer people from BME communities were on the register compared to white people. 56% of people living in private rented homes were counted, compared to nearly 90% of homeowners.

Inevitably, there is a balancing act between protecting our elections from potential fraud but also encouraging as many people as possible to go out and vote. Most of the serious cases of fraud have been linked to the exploitation of postal voting, and the rules have been tightened. It’s important we don’t stifle electoral registration in the midst of understandable anxiety about fraud.

The last Labour government legislated for the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration, which is an important step in modernising the way we vote and protecting the system from exploitation. The change means individuals themselves will need to join the electoral register, instead of a single member of a household filling out the form for all inhabitants. Labour's approach was that the changes would be phased over a number of years, with numerous checks and balances to ensure levels of registration were high. 

Yet the government are rushing the implementation of the new scheme, ignoring widespread concerns that by doing so, they risk leaving millions off the register. Individual Electoral Registration has now been piloted by the government, attempting to match people with data at the Department for Work and Pensions. The results only emphasise our fears. 8.7 million of the electorate could not be matched against the records held. Urban areas are losing out. An astonishing 26% of voters in London may not be eligible to vote in the Mayoral elections in 2016. Our young people will also suffer as the figures at our universities were remarkably low. In Lancaster University – an electoral ward – just 0.1% of the current electorate could be matched to the DWP database. All the statistics and evidence suggests that if we continue as we are, young, urban populations will be disproportionately affected by these dramatic changes. Yet the government continues to go ahead. 

Labour has called on the government to delay the implementation process, giving local authorities, universities and electoral registration officers more time to ensure as many people as possible are involved and represented. It’s a good example of the importance of striking a balance when it comes to reforming our democratic processes. The move to Individual Electoral Registration is the right thing to do, and will help tackle fraud. But it must be delivered with care and by adopting a phased approach, to ensure as many people as possible are involved. 

The electoral register performs a hugely important civic function. Beyond allowing our citizens the ability to vote, the register affects the wider political settlement and enables the selection of juries. We should try to ensure as many people as possible are registered, whilst maintaining vigilance about potential fraud. 

Voting slips are emptied out of the ballot box during the South Shields by-election on May 2, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.