THE BLOG

We Must Throw Our Weight Behind Voter Registration, Or Face a Crisis of Confidence in Our Democracy

02/12/2014 17:20 GMT | Updated 01/02/2015 10:59 GMT

This week, we began to get a better picture of the scale of the problems caused by this government's hasty, ill thought through and under resourced plans to introduce individual electoral registration (IER) as many local authorities begin to publish their updated electoral register. Already, Liverpool have said that 20,000 people have dropped off their register. It would be truly horrifying if this is repeated elsewhere across the country.

The government's announcement of a £10million fund to help get students on the electoral register ahead of the General Election was the first visible sign that ministers might finally be starting to wake up to the looming mess that is IER.

On the face of it, everyone being responsible for getting themselves on the electoral register, rather than a vague 'head of household' signing everyone up, seems sensible. But this is the biggest shift in the way people register to vote in many generations and given how important the register is to the health of our democracy tinkering with it should only be done with extreme caution.

It's frustrating enough as an MP to interrupt someone's quiet Sunday by knocking on their door and getting a shrug of the shoulders and an "I'm not voting because nothing changes" or "you're all the same as each other so why should I bother". But I can engage with voters like this, and explain to them Labour's offer and seek to persuade them to vote. But it's much worse to come across someone who says I'm doing a good job as their MP but they won't be voting because they aren't registered!

Alas, people not on the register aren't isolated cases. The Electoral Commission estimate that 7.5million people who are eligible to vote are unregistered - that's ten cities the size of Sheffield. And, as a result of the move to IER, the Electoral Commission themselves have estimated that a further 5.5million people are at risk of dropping off the register.

And it's private renters, the BAME community, young people and students who are most vulnerable to falling off the register. Just this week data showed how important student voters could be in a number of crucial battleground seats, making this issue doubly important to the outcome of the next election.

So many people missing off the register would mean decisions on the future of the country are decided by a smaller and smaller group of people, with political parties gearing their policies towards those they know vote. It is self-reinforcing, and risks corroding our democracy from the inside out.

Throughout this parliament I've said that we cannot afford to take risks with the electoral register. Time and again, I've said the government and the Electoral Commission are being too complacent about missing voters and the likelihood of even more people dropping off the register. It doesn't give me any satisfaction that my warnings are beginning to materialise.

Data from each local area is beginning to appear, but only in a piecemeal fashion. The Electoral Commission, outrageously, aren't publishing any national analysis until February, by which time it will only be 3 months until polling day - too late to make any meaningful difference.

We needed urgent action on this two years ago, as called for by Labour. The government's announcement yesterday of funding to tackle under-representation amongst students is welcome but risks being too little too late.

When the Electoral Registration and Administration Act was being debated in parliament back in 2012, Labour tabled amendments to allow block registration of students by universities. Ministers said it was unnecessary, and voted against it. But yesterday's announcement by Nick Clegg shows they were wrong and is a huge admission of failure.

And the Electoral Commission need to be shaken from their slumber too. I'm alarmed at their complacency and their lack of ambition to get the missing millions onto the electoral register. One of their measures of success is that the completeness of the register "does not deteriorate." How unambitious! The focus must be on maximising the numbers of those eligible to vote.

This mess is raising more fundamental questions about the health of our democracy. It is already a civic duty to register to vote. Failure to register when invited to do so can lead to a fine. But the time has now have come to think differently about voter registration.

Government departments have enormous amounts of data about us at their disposal. Surely it is possible to have a system in place where people are automatically placed on the register on the basis of being on council tax lists, housing benefit databases or having applied for a passport or driving licence?

In the longer term we will need to think radically, but we also need to desperately do all we can to get people registered in the short term. An election fought on the basis of a register so depleted of voters lacks legitimacy and risks accusations of gerrymandering. The full weight of the government, councils and all of us who care about a healthy democracy needs to be thrown behind getting as many eligible voters on the register by next May if we are to avoid a full-blown crisis of confidence in our democracy.

Sadiq Khan is the Shadow Justice Secretary, with special responsibility for political and constitutional reform