Electoral fraud should be taken seriously, but abandoning postal voting would risk disenfranchising millions of voters. In seeking to protect our democratic processes, we must always stay vigilant about unlawful practices at elections. However, it should not dampen our focus and ambition to look at new ways in which we can encourage greater numbers of people to vote. It would be to the detriment of our democracy if the challenge of confronting low turnout and disenfranchisement was stifled by the abuses of a few.
It's critical to keep the important issue of voter fraud in context. From the last General Election, there has been only one case that resulted in prosecution and conviction. Considering there are 45million eligible voters, seven million postal votes, 4,150 candidates and 135 registered parties, this is a serious but small anxiety in British politics. Simply abandoning postal voting would be an over-reaction and a severe blow to electoral turn-out. Postal-votes clearly encourage voters: in the 2013 local elections, 67% of those with a postal vote voted, compared to just 25% of those who had to go to their polling station. At the Police and Crime Commissioner elections, fewer than 10% of people voted at a ballot box, but nearly half of those with a postal vote had their say.
It seems like the worst possible moment to make it harder for people to vote. Electoral turnout in the UK has been on a downward trend since 1950, when 84% of the population turned out to vote. This compares to just 65% in the last general election. Membership of our political parties has fallen - the Conservative Party has gone from being three million strong in 1950 to having just 100,000 members today. Only 44% of those aged 18-24 voted in the last General Election and a recent survey found that only a third of 16-24 year olds say they have an interest in politics. When we're facing a dramatic democratic deficit, we must keep the relatively small problem of electoral fraud in proportion.
Labour supports renewed attempts to clamp down on electoral fraud. Options include increasing the punishments for those found guilty and making the complaints procedure less daunting to encourage whistleblowers. But at the same time, we're exploring new methods of enabling and encouraging people to vote. A Labour government would introduce votes at 16, creating a new generation of active citizens, and would look at ways of implementing election day-registration, to confront the scandalous under-registration of certain groups. This is a balanced and appropriate approach to the challenges we face.
Any evidence of electoral fraud should be taken seriously. But it must not detract from looking at ways of enabling and not stifling people's ability to vote. The vast majority of postal voters are law-abiding citizens who opt to vote by post for convenience. They should not lose out.