A Gerrymandered Election and A Flawed Mandate
Sat 30th May 2015
To the great puzzlement and consternation of pundits and pollsters, the British general election produced what seems to have been a great democratic victory for the Conservative party. The result is, however, easily explained. It was based on the deliberate disenfranchisement of millions of people who were most unlikely to vote Conservative. It does not require great forensic skill to expose just how it was done.
The smoking gun was a seemingly innocuous piece of legislation called the Electoral Registration and Administration Act, passed in 2013 with the support of the Electoral Commission. Its ostensible purpose was to reduce electoral fraud by ending the practice of allowing the head of household or the landlord of student digs or the warden of a student hostel and the like to enrol on the electoral register all those resident at a particular address, and to require instead that each elector should enrol individually. The supposedly unintended outcome was to drive a million voters off the register.
We know it cannot have been unintended because the outcomes were widely foreseen. The Individual Electoral Registration system (IER) had already been given a trial run in Northern Ireland in 2002. A Wikipedia report - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electoral_Fraud_%28Northern_Ireland%29_Act_2002 – records that “In August 2002 the last register of electors compiled [in Northen Ireland] under the old system contained nearly 1.2 million names, while the first register under the new system, published in December 2002, contained less than 1.1 million names, losing some 120,000 names for a net reduction of 10%."
It is therefore hard to accept that an outcome of this kind was an “unintended knock-on effect.” And this is borne out by the many warnings issued by various commentators in the run–up to the 2015 general election.
The Electoral Reform Society had produced a very revealing “Missing Millions” Report in October 2011 - see http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/sites/default/files/MissingMillionsReport_FINAL(2).pdf.The individual comments of the authors are worth noting. Michael Summerville, for example, said “We have spent years building up the register. We’re concerned that all that work will be undone. We could be looking at a 20-30,000 drop from a register of 165,000.”
Lewis Baston, Senior Research Fellow, Democratic Audit, voiced concern that parliamentary boundaries will be [re]drawn on the new electoral register, describing it as “utterly frightening”. Lewis outlined further concerns that “if after 2015 the register is purged of the last household canvass this will make the next boundary review taking place in 2016-2018 incomplete.”
Chris Ruane MP (Vale of Clwyd) was forthright in his views: “The people who are going to be left off are poor, black and ethnic, and living in privately rented and social housing. We’re going to return to electoral registration rates like Alabama in the 1950s” and Simon Wooley, from the Operation Black Vote, remarked “There won’t be the resources or the political will to deal with a massive democratic deficit”
Peter Facey, from Unlock Democracy, noted “the ongoing review of parliamentary boundaries” and that “the connection is problematic given the close proximity in terms of timings.” He referred to the view “the timing of IER taken together with the boundary review could give rise to the perception that the reforms were motivated by partisan interests. As a result, some participants supported the view that either the introduction of IER or boundary review should be delayed.”
And the Electoral Reform Society itself concluded “The Electoral Reform Society shares the views of electoral registration officers and others that existing plans have failed to sufficiently guard against a drop in the completeness of the register, and that in particular, traditionally disadvantaged groups within society risk further exclusion from the political process.”
The media had begun to take notice in 2014. On 3 July 2014, the BBC reported for example that a “Publicity campaign begins to highlight voting changes” at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-28132233 and raised a belated curtain on the Coalition Government's proposal to amend voter registration procedures.
The Huffington Post on 2 December 2014, see http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/sadiq-khan/2015-election-voter-registration_b_6255392.html) had published an article by Sadiq Khan in which he commented that "Alas, people not on the register aren't isolated cases. The Electoral Commission estimate that 7.5million people who are eligible to vote are unregistered - that's ten cities the size of Sheffield. And, as a result of the move to IER, the Electoral Commission themselves have estimated that a further 5.5 million people are at risk of dropping off the register.
And it's private renters, the BAME [Black and Middle East] community, young people and students who are most vulnerable to falling off the register. Just this week data showed how important student voters could be in a number of crucial battleground seats, making this issue doubly important to the outcome of the next election.
So many people missing off the register would mean decisions on the future of the country are decided by a smaller and smaller group of people, with political parties gearing their policies towards those they know vote. It is self-reinforcing, and risks corroding our democracy from the inside out."
The Huffington Post returned to the charge on 2 March 2015, reporting that a million voters had fallen off the electoral roll within the last year – see http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/02/02/one-million-voters-have-fallen-off-britains-electoral-register_n_6600740.html and that “Most affected by the drop off are students, with government reform of the individual electoral registration resulting in a steep decline in voter registration in university towns. The reform was designed to prevent electoral fraud, but the unintended knock-on effect has been to disenfranchise a million potential voters.”
The Huffington Post report explained further: “Previously, universities were able to register students in bulk, usually by their halls of residence. However, the government no longer allows this. Young adults, particularly those living in private rented accommodation, have also been squeezed, as have newer immigrant communities. Cities adversely affected – losing thousands of voters each – include Leeds, Brighton, Birmingham, Cardiff, Lancaster, Newcastle and the outer fringes of London including Dagenham.
Remarkably, the reforms have left some universities, such as East Sussex, with a near-90% drop in [student] voters, plunging from 3,500 registered students in 2014 to just 377 this year. Incredibly, Scotforth ward in Lancaster has only 22 of it[s] 7,000 students registered to vote, a shortfall that will have profound implications at the general election.”
As the date of the general election approached, Ed Miliband became alarmed. He said "This is a direct consequence of the government's decision to ignore warnings that rushing through new individual registration reforms would damage democracy. We will not allow this scandal to happen and no right-thinking person should either." But it was too late. Neither Ed Milband nor any “right-thinking person.” could prevent this scandal from happening.
The Guardian had picked up the theme on 24 February 2014 – see http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/feb/24/million-voters-missing-roll-electoral-commission-students-block-individual-registration where Patrick Wintour and Matthew Taylor reported a drop in the electoral roll numbers by 920,000 “in the 10 months to December 2014, with some areas – including Cardiff and Oxford which both have large student populations – seeing falls of more than 10%.”
Paul Wheeler, the Founder of the Political Skills Forum, also reported on Thursday 5 February under the headline “Britain's missing voters: why individual registration has been a disaster”(see http://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2015/feb/05/missing-voters-individual-electoral-registration-disaster ) that “[A further] Seven million people risk being removed from the voting register if they do not provide evidence of where they live by December 2015.”
And, while the Cabinet Office insisted that “the switch to individual voter registration will not affect the general election since anyone on the old household register in December 2013 will be entitled to vote in 2015”, that turned out not to be the case. As Mr Wheeler reports, “The burden has been put on cash-strapped local councils to contact 46 million voters instead of 20 million households. Some have been able to, but many simply don’t have the money or IT skills.
We have made a simple process of registration much more complex. For instance, a newly-married woman who chooses to change her name is now required to provide two forms of identification before being accepted back on to the register.
But the group most affected is students. Previously, universities, like other institutional landlords, could provide a single list of eligible voters to the local authority. Now every student has to register individually. That is not necessarily a priority during freshers’ week. The result is levels of registration plummeting from 100% to less than 10% in most university residences.”
In The Guardian of 21 February 2014, Rowenna Davis had asked “What is the real motive behind individual voter registration?” see http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/21/individual-voter-registration-conservative-party.She observed that the major justification for IER was said to be to prevent fraud, but that, since there is no evidence of widespread fraud, the remedy is worse than the alleged problem: she commented “The government says that individual voter registration is needed to prevent fraud, and I expect it would reject Labour's proposed solutions on the same grounds. The problem is that there is no evidence to support its position. According to the Electoral Commission, there have been less than 10 proven cases of electoral registration fraud in the past four years, and it's not clear how this new system – which allows you to register online without a paper trail or signature to check – can solve this problem. Even if by some weird twist the government proposals did reduce fraud, the cost in terms of potentially thousands of people dropping off the register and being turned away at the polls doesn't seem worth it. Why should the wrongs of a few mean that the many are punished?”
Her conclusion was that “Sadly, I fear it is in the Conservative party's interest to suppress the number of citizens who are able to vote. This is a party that opposed universal suffrage and caused a massive decline in the number of people on the electoral roll through Margaret Thatcher's plans for a poll tax, which resulted in many people dropping off the list for fear of having to pay. The party knows that the groups vulnerable to the change – renters, BME groups, young people – are unlikely to vote for it. The groups left voting will be the relatively powerful in society, and so our politics will become more likely to serve them and their interests, cutting the less fortunate out of the conversation.”
It cannot be credible that these expressions of concern did not constitute an adequate warning that the franchise would be prejudicially affected as so many voters dropped off the register. Yet the Government was not to be deterred. Indeed, the British system exhibited several features that made the problems worse.
Other jurisdictions had managed to introduce an individual electoral registration system without producing such disastrous consequences. The Australians, for example, transferred to an IER system without disenfranchising millions of their voters. (See http://www.aec.gov.au/About_AEC/research/direct.htm ) The Australian achievement of a functioning representative democracy with an enviably complete voters roll is a gold standard for others to emulate. The chosen method of implementation of the Coalition Government's IER Act maximised the loss of voters by specifying that every change of address and every change of name (such as on marriage) would require a new individual registration on each occasion, accompanied by proofs of identification. The disincentive effect was thereby maximised.
The Government did its best to conceal the scale of what was happening. Nearly all UK Electoral Statistics released by the Coalition Government are based upon comparisons with a previous year or with an earlier month in the year. These are misleading because they take no account of the movement between 2015 and earlier dates over a longer period.
The Office for National Statistics, for example, says that “The total number of UK parliamentary electors in 2013 was 46,139,900, a fall of 0.5% from 2012.” and that “The number of parliamentary electors has declined in all regions of England between 2012 and 2013. The largest decrease (1.7%) was in the West Midlands.” See http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/pop-estimate/electoral-statistics-for-uk/2013/stb---2013-electoral-statistics.html
But if we compare that with the December 2014 registers at http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/182375/Analysis-of-the-December-2014-electoral-registers-in-England-and-Wales.pdf we can see that the major losers of electoral votes are the university cities and those with relocating populations. Section 2 of that Report states “The “Live Run” to test out the number of voters in the IER system, taking place in July 2014, involved the matching of existing entries on the electoral registers against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) database as well as locally held data in order to identify which records could be automatically transferred to the IER registers. This process known as the 'Confirmation Live Run' (CLR), took place in June and July 2014 in England and Wales” and “Entries for electors that could be positively matched were confirmed and transferred directly to the new IER register. Those individuals not matched were written to by their ERO and asked to re-register by providing additional information (National Insurance number (NINO) and date of birth). Based on the CLR data matching (figure 1 below): 87% of entries on the June registers in England and Wales – totalling 36.9 million register entries – were positively matched and directly transferred to the new IER register. 13% of entries – totalling approximately 5.5 million - could not be matched.”
So, while the total numbers on the English and Wales Electoral Roll could have been 42.4 million, only 36.9 million were directly transferred and 5.5 million were not registered. While these missing voters were allegedly being positively pursued using the measures listed in Section 4 of the Report, it is clear that cash-strapped local authorities might not have had either the money or the resources to find and register these missing voters. Furthermore, there were, according to the Electoral Commission, 7.5 million missing voters not included even in the highest estimates of the Electoral Roll, so the total Electoral Roll could and should be about (46 million + 7.5 million) or 53.5 million while those not registered to vote are (7.5 plus 5.5) million or 13 million, or about 24% missing voters.
The pollsters seem not to have registered any of this information which provided, after all, a strong indication that a Conservative victory was likely. The British Polling Council (BPC) has announced that it proposes to conduct an enquiry into how the pollsters got it so wrong. See http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/05/08/general-election-polls-enquiry_n_7244892.html . This investigation, if it has any quality, is bound to conclude that the Coalition government's IER legislation was responsible for the failure to predict the election outcome. It will probably put “unintentionally” before the word “responsible”. We'll see.
In the meantime, we can be certain that at least a substantial part of the answer to the mystery of the unexpected Tory majority has been laid bare. It is clear that failed to enrol and therefore dropped off the electoral roll. It was these voters who made up the millions of voters who disappeared between 2010 and 2015. It is not fanciful to assume that many of these disenfranchised voters would have voted anything but Tory. The impact of this kind of movement in marginal constituencies can easily be evaluated. A restricted franchise has always been seen as an advantage to the parties of the right – it was one of the objectives of the poll tax, after all – and it may well have operated as a very effective secret weapon.
So, in the search for an explanation for the unexpected election result, we do not have far to look. In addition to the perennial tendency towards a lower turnout by disadvantaged and younger voters, and the huge disparity in financial resources and media support enjoyed by right-wing parties, we can now identify a further built-in and deliberately engineered gerrymandering of the election process. We should never underestimate the ruthlessness with which the right pursues its goals. It can truly be said that they have at last discovered a mechanism for making democracy work for them.
© Bryan Gould and George Tait Edwards 2015