Ballot papers cast in the Newark by-election are counted in Kelham Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.