The UK is facing a crisis of democratic participation. The number of people turning out to vote has fallen from a high of 83.9 per cent in 1950 to just 65.1 per cent in 2010, and the situation is set to get worse. One million voters are thought to have dropped off the Voting Register in the past year, and it is feared that millions more will follow after the general election this May 7th.
The reason for the fall in the numbers of those eligible to vote is because the way we register has changed. Whereas previously the task of registering adults eligible to vote was left to one person from every household, Individual Voter Registration (which became law in 2009) requires UK citizens to register individually.
The aims behind new measures, including the wish to combat the exclusion of women and reduce electoral fraud, are laudable. However the implementation of Individual Voter Registration by the Conservative-led Coalition government is so complicated that it will exclude many more voters than it includes. Newly married women who choose to change their name, for example, will need to provide two forms of identification to remain on the register. In total, more than 7 million people risk losing their vote after the general election this May unless they provide further evidence of their eligibility.
'7.5 million of YOU are missing from the electoral register. Make sure you're NOT one of them. #RegisterToVote'
UNITE the union, Twitter, 6/2/2015
That's why last Thursday (5th February 2015) the UK celebrated its second National Voter Registration Day, an impressive initiative created by campaign group Bite the Ballot. Social media was alive with cries from politicians, trade unions, campaigners and citizens alike, all calling for people to sign up to vote and have a voice in the way our country is run. Even Facebook got involved, urging every eligible user of the online service to register ahead of May 7th. With 35 million users in the UK - a figure considerably higher than the number of people that voted in the 2010 general election - the impact of such a campaign has great potential.
'Hundreds of thousands of people are losing their vote. This isn't just a scandal, it's a disaster for democracy'.
Ed Miliband, Labour Party leader, Twitter, 5/2/2015
The greatest scandal is that students and young people will be disproportionately hit by the new law. For many, May 7th will be their first opportunity to exercise their most basic civic right, by electing the men and women they want to see leading the country. However it's feared that the number of 16-18 year olds going on the register will be down by more than 100,000 before the general election. Levels of registration in the majority of university residences have fallen from 100% to just 10%.
Yet it's young people that have been so tragically let down by the Coalition government. The scrapping of Labour's Education Maintenance Allowance and the tripling of university fees, not to mention the slashing of youth services, cuts to mental health services for young people and proposed cuts to Disabled Students Allowance, have left our youth considerably worse off than in 2010. Youth unemployment continues to rise: under-25s are now up to four times more likely to be out of work than over-25s.
'Politicians write policies for people who vote. Make a difference on #NVRD & #RegisterToVote!'
Bite The Ballot, Twitter, 6/2/2015
It doesn't have to be this way. Fewer people voted for the Conservatives than didn't vote in the 2010 election. Voting is our chance to say 'No' to the path the Coalition is leading us down, and to elect a government that truly represents the people.
Casting your vote has a significance that stretches beyond our borders, too. The UK has much to gain from our continued membership of the European Union, which has the power to significantly improve the lives of Europe's most vulnerable citizens. Yet UK voter turnout in last year's European elections was one of the lowest among Member states, at just 34.19 per cent (compared to a 43.09 per cent average).
Labour MEPs are working tirelessly to ensure that EU initiatives help the people who need it most in the UK. My North East constituency, which suffers from the highest rate of youth unemployment in the country, has directly benefitted from millions of pounds of European Structural and Investment Funds. These funds have created jobs, improved local skills and grown the regional economy. However stalling from the UK government is putting the next round of these vital investments - worth £724 million to the region from now until 2020 - at risk.
Even worse, if the UK were to pull out of the EU following a Tory-promised referendum, these funding streams would dry up altogether. The Government's contempt is not limited to Brussels - it's a contempt for the people who stand to benefit most from our continued membership, too.
So please make sure that you, your family and friends are all registered to vote in the coming general election and for any possible referendum on our continued membership of the EU.
The polls suggest that the results of May 7th are going to be very close, so your vote could make all the difference. Over 166,000 UK citizens registered to vote on 5th February alone - join them now and make your voice heard!
Paul Brannen is Labour MEP for North East of England and Labour spokesperson for Agriculture and Rural Development