Last year, Conservative minister Mark Harper got up in Parliament to announce the government’s plans to speed up the introduction of individual electoral registration.
At the time, the news was fairly low key and uncontroversial. It was the previous Labour government that had legislated for its introduction following repeated calls from all political parties and the Electoral Commission that the current system of household registration (where one person fills in a form on behalf of everyone in a house, rather than each person registering individually) is too open to fraud.
However, since Harper’s announcement, the political controversy has built up as more people have twigged to the possible implications of the linked announcement of a move to making electoral registration voluntary. You can have one without the other, but Harper announced both would happen.
Voluntary registration has caused controversy for three reasons. First, the principle – should registration be voluntary?
Second, the pragmatic – why make two big changes, each hard to get right on their own, at the same time? Certainly reading through the government’s own official consultation and Impact Assessment, I’ve found it hard to conclude that the government has thought through the implications of voluntary electoral registration.
For example, as jury service is based on the electoral register, making registration voluntary also thereby makes jury service voluntary – yet that knock-on effect of voluntary registration in the jury system simply gets no mention in the impact assessment. Failing to assess an impact rather undermines the point of an Impact Assessment.
As for the third reason – voluntary registration is likely to see registration levels for those in lower socio-economic groups drop more sharply than for others. Experience from other countries suggests this won’t simply be a case of people who don’t vote dropping off the electoral register, but will actually depress voting levels from such groups. That means Labour is concerned that voluntary registration will damage its own electoral prospects.
Yet some of the rhetoric from Labour ranks has been ludicrously over the top. Listening to some Labour MPs condemn the government with broad-brushed attacks on individual electoral registration, you would never know that it was a Labour government that introduced it – and that they themselves had backed it in Parliament votes.
Indeed, it was then Labour minister Michael Wills, who said in the Commons in 2009: “I hope that all Members will agree that this historic shift will enrich our democracy”. Likewise, take a look at Labour’s 2010 election manifesto and you find a mention of individual electoral registration – not as an evil Tory move to be resisted, but as a Labour legislative change to be proud of.
What many Labour figures are doing, either deliberately or inadvertently, is to muddle up the concerns over making electoral registration voluntary with moving to individual registration.
In that respect, Labour are making the classic mistake of campaigners through the ages: muddle issues, over-state your case and apply a dollop of aggressive rhetoric. That works great if you want to motivate your own side; it’s disastrous if you want to persuade anyone to change their minds.
That may yet not matter (other than in damaging Labour’s credibility) for Unlock Democracy has been much more savvy in being clear that its electoral registration campaign is aimed only stopping the plans to make electoral registration voluntary. Given the number of Liberal Democrats who have spoken up in agreement with its campaign, and the likely views of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, the smart money is on individual registration proceeding but the switch to voluntary registration being axed.