Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Engaging the disengaged

Being on the electoral register is a civic duty. In some ways, it’s the nearest thing Britain has to a social contract.

Nobody can make you vote, but if you’re on the register you belong to a democracy.

It’s the basis of our justice system. If you’re not on it, you can’t serve on a jury.

The police use it to locate suspects and their associates.

It’s what banks use to prevent fraud.

Councils use it to check people pay enough council tax, or are on the right benefits.

But from next year, the government will make it harder to sign up.

At a time when we’re rightly worried about social unrest and family breakdown, they are going to stop parents with a sense of social responsibility registering their teenage children to vote!

Instead, everyone will have to register individually, and teenagers who might never have realised they had a national insurance number will have to give it to the authorities or lose their franchise.

So-called ‘individual registration’ has already been introduced in Northern Ireland and, predictably, the register collapsed. Worse, according to the Electoral Commission, those most ‘adversely affected’ were disadvantaged groups: young people, ethnic minorities, or people on low incomes or in bad housing.

In other words, individual registration disengages the people we most need to engage with.

The Electoral Commission reckon that when it is rolled out across the rest of Britain, only 65 per cent of people will register to vote.

The coalition says it needs to do this to prevent election fraud. But according to its own research fraudulent registration is ‘rare’, and 20 times more people are satisfied with how we register to vote than are dissatisfied.

The problem isn’t fraudulent over-registration, it’s that millions don’t register at all.

And so I’ve proposed a new law, the electoral register (access to public services) bill, which is designed to boost registration among those most likely to be disengaged.

This new law will make it compulsory to be on the electoral register in order to access public services like social security benefits or tax credits, or even if you want a driving licence.

I don’t think it’s much of an imposition. After all, if you need to be on the electoral register to get a credit card, why not be on it if you want a driving licence?

If you don’t like living in a democracy, fine – just don’t expect all the good things we provide in return.

However, if you do want to be part of our amazing democracy, then sign up to the electoral register and when times are hard you can get housing benefit or tax credits.

You might have to do jury service, and the police might know where to find you if you do something wrong, but that’s a small price to pay.

There are some people who think this would be too authoritarian. But they should remember that, even now, if you don’t sign up you can be fined.

But why punish when you can reward?

The benefits of living in a democracy in return for signing up to democracy.

That’s not such a bad deal, is it?

I’m not forcing anyone to vote.

But I do think if we ask people to sign up to democracy to get the rewards of living in a democracy, who knows, we might even strengthen democracy!

And that, after all, is much better than allowing millions of poor, dispossessed people to lose their right to vote.


Siobhain McDonagh is MP for Mitcham and Morden. She tweets @SiobhainMP


Photo: synaesthesia

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Siobhain McDonagh MP

is MP for Mitcham and Morden


  • This could be a good idea, but it would depend on how it works in practice. If someone turns up at a job centre applying for benefits and is turned away because they are not on the elctoral register, thats wrong.
    If however, at the same time as applying, a check is done, and if someone is not on the register, the information they have ALREADY GIVEN is used to add them to the register once this is confirmed, then that would be a useful way of ensuring the register is accurate and up to date.

  • If I were to have, say, a million quid in the bank [earned by either fair or foul means] I may read the above blog with something akin to amazement. The ideas above are too authoritarian, by far, for my money and sound about one step away from an Authoritarian State which is what Democracy is NOT about. The richer class of Gentrified folk need to vote as do the poorer citizens in the community. Equitable is, as equitable does. Equality for all is one of the major tenets upon which Democracy is based. Free choice is another one we should keep dusted off for posterity and our future citizens, regardless of their bank balances and ratings on the societal totem pole.

    This concept is not new. Any [sane] Citizen can see the advantages of being registered to vote. Yes, it should be a civic responsibility incumbent on any Citizen who is capable and fit enough to cast their vote for them to do so or incur penalties — but NOT a rollicking from an employee (public servant) at the Job Centre or a death-sentence from the DWP when benefits to eat and be heated are cut off. [DWP & Draconian State is a rhyming couplet in most unemployed/disabled households – go ask MORI to conduct another expensive poll if you doubt my word]. But do please give us some factual statistics on just how many Citizens are actually eligible to vote in UK ?? And which party they are likely to cast their vote for ? – that would be a poll worth glancing at, over one’s Duchy porridges & Tartan Marmalade toast. And please, no polls which are just rounded off to the odd few million, give and take a hundred thousand. Let the councils/civil & public servants earn their coin for once and give us, Joe Public, a helping hand – educate us as to the machinations and workings of a 1st Parliament for starters. [I contend we are too reliant on some [if not ALL] ‘suck-thumb’ DM/UGov/MORI ‘recent’ polls. How accurate are these polls anyway ? And have you seen the interviewers ?

    But yes, I agree wholeheartedly with you, VOTING DOESMATTER. The honest vote is a good and accurate reflection of what the proletariat want and who should rule the country, [for and on their behalf].

    This is very important for any political party. Anywhere in the world, and decisions we make at the Mother of all Parliaments trickles down to many countries.

    If I were Tory & Lib Dem I would be looking of ways to block any move to allow more of the citizenry a vote as the true&actual vote for LABOUR would be astronomical. Ed will be pleased.

    Nice one ,Lady, but needs less of the stick.

  • This analysis is too simplistic. Yes, all the points about civic responsibility are important and valid. But the question is why do people not register to vote in the first place, and this has very little to do with how the registration process works. It is much more fundamental then that and goes to the deep fault lines that exist throughout our society. And with these fault lines remaining unchallenged, then yes, the new “individual registration” proposals will disenfranchise even more.

  • Why is it that politicians always seem to favour the stick over the carrot?

    Instead of using force or compulsion why not use incentives? WHY NOT PAY THE PEOPLE TO VOTE?

    Yes, I do think this idea is so radical that it needs bold capitals to do it justice. It is a policy idea that is so powerful that it could be a game-changer at every election for a generation. It would reverse the decline in Labour turnout and permanently change the balance of power in the country. Moreover it is a policy that the Tories would have great difficulty in opposing even though it would severely damage them electorally. How could you campaign to abolish a tax-free handout to everyone? It would be electoral suicide.

    The core idea is this: pay every registered voter a significant cash sum, say £100-£250, if they vote at the general election (GE). The payment would be dependent only on voting, not on their choice of party or candidate. If set at £100 per person it would cost about £4.5bn per general election, or £0.9bn per annum. That is peanuts in government spending terms. Yet the results could be immense.

    It would raise turnouts from 60% to nearer 90%, or higher. At the last GE turnout in Labour seats averaged only 61% compared to 68% in Tory ones. This would increase the Labour vote relative to the Tory one by at least 10%. That is one million voters minimum.

    It would bring back up to 5 million missing voters back on to the electoral register. That is 10% of the electorate. That would account for the remaining one million difference in votes between Labour and the Tories at the last election. (See )

    It would also increase the number of voters in Labour inner city seats, thereby negating much of the Tory reasoning behind boundary changes.

    It is redistributive. Its impact on the poorer (Labour voting) households would be much greater than on richer ones. The result would be a huge increase in support for Labour as well as a reduction in inequality.

    It is a policy that has massive benefits for Labour and no penalties. If average turnouts increased from 60% to over 90%, I think it is fair to assume that most of these missing voters will be natural Labour voters. Potentially this could almost double the Labour vote compared to the last election will little increase in votes for the Tories or Lib Dems.

    This “Voters’ Dividend” could be paid for out of general taxation (raise the 45% rate to 46%) or by giving away RBS and Lloyds bank shares. Even right-wing organizations like the Taxpayers Alliance I think would have difficulty opposing a policy that in effect would be seen as returning taxes to taxpayers.

    So come on! Let’s be radical.

    I originally proposed this idea a couple of months ago on my blog. For more details see

    I have yet to hear a valid argument against it.

  • There are two problems with compulsory voting:

    1) A large section of the electorate may come to resent it as they will see it as an infringement of their right to choose.

    2) It is unenforceable. We already have laws that compel people to add their names to the electoral register. It is not enforced because there is no political will to do so. Politicians fear the public backlash that might ensue. Compulsory voting will therefore suffer from the same problem.

    That is why the carrot is better than the stick (see my other comment on paying people to vote).

  • I have no problem with paying people to vote – in fact it makes a whole lot of sense. That said, I think you are way to comfortable with raising taxes to pay for it. I’d be more inclined to pay £10 in cash or perhaps as a discount off your TV licence fee.

    For obvious reasons it’s illegal for any party to reward people for voting, but a reward from the government, regardless of whom you vote for would be fine, in my view.

    I do also think it is fair that all services and benefits accessed should be reliant on someone being registered to vote.

  • To pay for votes [?] … nah, that is too **radical even for moi. But it isn’t new either – there are many references down history where this one [bribing the electorate with cash incentives] has backfired spectacularly. In our UK land of the lawyers, it would hardly get past the start-gate before falling foul of a couple dozen legal banana skins[unlawful inducements to vote being one]. . How to get more voters [preferably LABOUR ones] to put their “X” on the day ? Simply send out more postal votes. And let the LABOUR supporters know just what to expect if this current lot of Tories & Lib Dems gain another term — its called dong your job as an MP. Get more women on the board is the simple solution to procure more voters — the men are making such a hash of it.
    [ I bet you a £ to a pinch of snuff that Rt Hon Margaret Hodge would give you a few pointers if you bothered to ask the Lady].

    If the electorate needs to be bribed, coerced or beaten in to voting then we have sadly reached the point of no return; you may as well hand over the State on a platter to Fascism.Or Satan.

    But **Cantab83 has the right idea — just not quite spot on.

  • Financial inducements to vote for one particular party or candidate are supposedly outlawed by the 1872 Ballot Act. Yet what are tax cuts, council house sales and share privatizations if not electoral bribes? They are not even available to all on an equal basis. Only a select few benefit from such policies. These types of financial incentives are allowed because any opposing party can always match or trump those of any other with its own manifesto promises.

    At least rewarding all voters for their time used in casting their vote is a universal benefit in that it is an incentive available to all irrespective of how they cast their vote. It is therefore far more legal than any other so-called electoral bribe I can think of. You are rewarding all people equally based solely on the action of voting, not on their voting preference. That is an important legal distinction. The reward (in theory) does not directly change the outcome of the election, and certainly no more than any tax cut does.

    Anyway, the 1872 Ballot Act can always be amended, retrospectively if necessary, in order to clarify the distinctions I have made above.

  • David Chung
    Three Cheers for Siobhain and three cheers for democracy. A classic win/win. You win and democracy wins.

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