It seems that Ealing council leader, Labour’s Julian Bell, is in favour of our 19th century system of household voter registration. The UK is the only Western democracy that does not have individual electoral registration (IER). He is not alone. Labour figures Harriet Harman and Tom Watson have also come out in favour of the existing system which many suspect allows men, especially men in ethnic communities, to control the votes of their entire households.
The UK’s independent Electoral Commission has been advocating IER since 2003. The previous Labour government initiated moves to IER and the current government is carefully moving this project forward. Belatedly the Left has realised that this may lose them some votes, see the New Statesman here.
All of a sudden Hattie and Co. are in favour of men’s right to vote on behalf of their entire household. Harriet Harman’s remarks are typically partisan and unhelpful. She said in closing last week’s Labour conference:
And the Lib Dems – to their eternal shame – are colluding with the Tories in changing the law on the electoral register. The plans the Tories have set out are going to push people off the electoral register – deny them their vote, deny them their voice. The numbers are going to be huge. The independent Electoral Commission warn that this could deny millions of people the right to vote. The Tories hope it will help them win the election. That is a shameful assault on people’s democratic rights and we will expose it and campaign against it. Parliament has no right to take away people’s right to vote. The government cannot be allowed to get away with it.
You would get no idea from these remarks that IER is entirely uncontroversial. If you spend any time reading the White Paper the current proposals are merely a speeding up of proposals made by the previous Labour government and endorsed by the independent Electoral Commission. Indeed the Electoral Commission issued the following statement to effectively rebut Harriet Harman the same day she spoke:
We support the introduction of IER as an important improvement in how people register to vote. It was initially proposed by the previous government and we are pleased that the current government has produced a White Paper on its introduction. We welcome the current debate on the issue and the opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny to ensure IER is introduced in the best way possible.
We believe IER can be introduced in a way to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register is improved. We have however highlighted to Government and Parliament our concern that if the opt-out from registration currently proposed is introduced registration could drop towards election turn-out levels.
The News Statesman is more reasonable than Hattie. It does make a good point about compulsion:
The Electoral Commission calls it the “biggest change” to voting since the start of universal suffrage in 1928. What has attracted the attention of the independent Electoral Commission, and the ire of academics, pollsters, electoral registration officers, the Electoral Reform Society and, belatedly, the Labour Party, is the Conservative-led government’s proposal to switch from a system of household registration of voters, which is vulnerable to fraud and error, to a system of individual electoral registration (IER), in which, crucially, it will no longer be compulsory for members of the public to co-operate with electoral registration officers.
It does seem to me that there is a debate to be had about compulsion. In theory the current annual canvas is compulsory. In theory you can be fined £1,000 for not making a return. In practice this never, ever happens. I defy you to find a report of anyone being taken to court and fined by any council. The compulsion issue is a red herring I suspect. If we had compulsory voting then compulsory registration might be logical. But, we don’t have compulsory voting. I would argue that it will become normal for political activists to work to get potential voters on the register. What better way of re-connecting people with politics? The alternative is to have local authorities prosecuting people on a large scale for not registering, people who don’t want to vote in the first place. This will not improve our politics. Compulsion implies punishment.
The bottom line here is that Labour calculates that in many ethnic minority households the man of the house block votes Labour on behalf of the entire household and that IER will hinder this. Harman’s commitment to female emancipation comes second always to her commitment to the Labour party’s electoral chances. She believes always that the means justify the ends.