Occupy protesters gathered outside parliament. Photo: Morgan Elder
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Why are Occupy Democracy protesters staging another occupation in London?

Braving the damp weather, Occupy protesters have occupied a square in front of the Supreme Court, calling for a movement for representative and participative democracy.

In spite of the wet weather and icy winds, Occupy Democracy protesters gathered in Parliament Square last night to call for a movement for truly representative democracy. However, plans to occupy Parliament Square were immediately thwarted as the square had been fenced off, with dozens of police encircling its perimeter and Scotland Yard warning that an “appropriate and proportionate police plan” was in place. After a short-lived stand-off with the police, 150 protesters moved into the road to form a blockade, drowning out the beeps of angry Whitehall motorists. Managing to narrowly avoid kettling and arrests, protesters marched towards parliament to occupy the square in front of the Supreme Court. Having not moved, they plan to be there until Sunday evening, with a range of workshops and speeches planned.

Huddled in a sprawling circle, occupiers listened to speeches and poems from speakers who were all united in their disregard for the current state of British democracy. Part of the global Occupy movement, Occupy Democracy campaigns against corporate corruption, austerity and privatisation. The occupation drew a diverse crowd, including a number of “Occupy virgins”, students and of course the usual die-hard activist folk. Asad Khan, a women's wear fashion-designer was not your usual suspect. Incensed by what he saw as the police brutality of last month’s Occupy protest, Khan was at home when he came across a YouTube video of the occupation. “I saw a video of the police dragging people off parliament square for simply sitting down, I thought it was absurd and grotesque so I came down to see what was going on straight away”. Now joining Occupy Democracy for this weekend’s latest protest, Khan gestures at the crowds around him: “Look at these people nobody here wants to fight or deface anything, they simply want to come together to discuss how they can make the world a better place”.

Steve Robson, a 24-year-old from East London who works in customer service says that this is the first Occupy protest he has been too. Drawing links between London and Hong Kong he says: “I think its weird that in Hong Kong they're allowed to protest outside their parliament but we’re not even allowed on Parliament Square. We’re meant to be living in a democratic society but at the last occupation we had our sleeping bags and tarpaulin confiscated”.

Donnachadh McCarthy, the former deputy chair of the Liberal Democrats also joined occupiers. Since being forced out of the party for whistleblowing on corporate lobbying corruption in 2004, McCarthy has become increasingly involved in the Occupy movement. “I’m here because I believe our political system really is corrupt. I’ve experienced it first hand and from the inside you can see the lack of party democracy and the lobbyists in action”.

Last month’s ten day long occupation on Parliament Square was heavily policed, with over 40 arrests for trivial matters. The 2011 Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act now means that the police can forcibly remove protesters which set up camp in Parliament Square and confiscate items which are considered to be sleeping equipment or a structure. At last month’s occupation, pizza boxes were confiscated on the grounds that they were being used as pillows and umbrellas on account that they were used as structures.

An organiser, George Barda, who has been involved in the Occupy movement since its original occupation in St Pauls in 2011 has high hopes for the weekend. “We hope this weekend will increase the pressure on an anti-democratic system which seems determined to squash inconvenient voices. The more we come back to Parliament Square, the more we can expose the contempt for democracy by those in power”. In the hope that Occupy Democracy can extend beyond the green square they are occupying, protesters hope to stay where they are until Sunday, taking part in discussions on everything from the NHS to the climate, the economy and our democratic system as a whole.

Photo: Getty Images
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Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.