Ballot papers cast in the Newark by-election are counted in Kelham Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

One website won't solve the voter registration problem

The government's policy of Individual Electoral Registration will make things worse.

Today, the government has launched a website which allows online voter registration. You can have a look here. This is a really important initiative, which we should all welcome. Now, with a few simple clicks and a national insurance number, people will be able to register more conveniently. Hopefully, the website will be attractive for younger people, who now mostly use online services for personal administration.

Whilst this is a positive development, we should all be aware of the vast challenge we face because of under-registration. There are already around 6 million people eligible to vote who aren’t on the register, with huge disparities between different demographic groups. Around half of 18-24 years olds are not registered, compared to six per cent of those aged over 65. Fewer people from BME communities are on the register compared to white people. Fifty six per cnet of people living in private rented homes are counted, compared to nearly 90 per cent of homeowners.

The government is currently rushing to introduce Individual Electoral Registration – which will require each individual to register, rather than the current head of household. In the short-term, this is likely to make things worse. The government’s figures from their own pilots suggest that nearly 9 million of the current electorate face falling off the register, as they can’t be matched with government-held (DWP) data.

The same groups which are currently under-represented are most susceptible to the drop-off. Transient groups, such as young people and private renters may find their political voice is further stifled. The website will  help mitigate the potentially disastrous decline in registration. But it is not a silver bullet and there is much more we can all do across the country.

Students are a group that are in danger of falling off the register, as they move from home to halls to private renting during their studies. In Sheffield,  my colleague Paul Blomfield MP is working with all the Universities to ensure electoral registration is integrated with the process of enrolling each year. This mechanism is now being adopted by other universities across the country – from Norwich to Lincoln to Liverpool, many Labour MPs, PPCs and councillors are working with NUS and universities to ensure the student voice is heard.

Many Labour councils are working innovatively to ensure their levels of registration are maintained. Local data-matching – matching voters with council-held data – can help locate those in danger of falling off the register. Councils can encourage letting agents to offer voter registration forms as part of their new tenants' kit. They can make this happen in social housing too.

The next Labour government will do its bit. Sadiq Khan and I have already said that we will not implement individual electoral registration unless levels of registration are assured. We are commited to working with schools, as hubs of our local community, to encourage registration and will implement the Schools Initiative, which helped dramatically increase registration amongst young people in Northern Ireland. This ensures teachers and local electoral registration officers are working together to register youngsters . Combined with Labour’s commitment to offering votes at 16 and improved citizenship education, Labour will offer an empowering agenda to young people, who too often feel disengaged from the political process.

The campaigning organisation Bite the Ballot  have been advocating the implementation of the Schools Initiative for some time. They are also undertaking fantastic work on the ground, going into schools and colleges to talk and debate with young people about politics, their communities, their aspirations and their concerns with the aim of urging people to register to vote. Their inaugural National Voter Registration day was a huge success and plans are already afoot to ensure the momentum continues up to the general election and beyond.

At the European elections, only 34 per cent of people came out to vote. A lack of voter registration is one source of the low turnout. Whilst today’s launch is welcome, one website is not going to solve this problem. There is much more work to be done, and Labour is rising to that challenge.

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

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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.