This week’s news that the House of Lords has rejected the Tories’ plans to redraw constituency boundaries for electoral advantage is great news for British democracy. The next challenge is to tackle the low levels of voter registration.
Democracy is deep in the DNA of my own constituency, Blaenau Gwent. Growing up I learned about its rich social history, including how it provided leadership for the Chartist movement, which did so much to secure the vote for working people. Pikes were stored in the caves at Trefil before the Newport Rising in 1839, and Zephaniah Williams, its leader, lived in Nantyglo.
The Electoral Commission described the electoral register as the ‘bedrock’ of our democracy. In December 2010, it estimated that it was just 85 to 87 per cent complete, meaning six million people are missing and denied a vote. The problem is particularly stark in Northern Ireland, where the latest appraisal found that the register is only 71 per cent complete.
Registration is particularly weak among students, ethnic minorities and those in private rented accommodation. It is also important to target those who move house or become eligible to vote, who too often slip through the net.
With all the megabytes of data available a complete and accurate electoral register should be deliverable. However, the most effective way to maintain the register seems to be the annual canvass, in which local authorities knock on doors to ensure individuals are registered.
We should consider supplementing this with more innovative ways to capture information. Until now, we have considered data-matching only with publicly held information, but it could be helpful to include private sector databases, like credit reference agencies and tenancy deposit schemes. Privacy concerns must be addressed, but as we provide addresses when buying mobile phones, cars, and signing personal finance contracts, these could be a rich seam for voter identification to strengthen our democracy.
As we know, changes to electoral registration will be made at a time when local authorities face significant cuts. This expenditure should be prioritised, because our democracy is too important to be whittled away by a thousand cuts.
The government need to show much more ambition on voter registration. Let’s get these six million people onto the electoral register, and give them a say in our country’s future.
Nick Smith is member of parliament for Blaenau Gwent, member of the public accounts committee, and member of the Progress strategy board
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