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

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue