Electoral Registration — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:56 pm on 12th January 2012.

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Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour 12:56 pm, 12th January 2012

My Lords, this is a very timely debate that my noble friend Lord Wills has called for today. We were reminded of just how timely by the publication yesterday of the proposal by the Welsh Boundary Commission for the new Welsh seats-a proposal greeted with universal disbelief. There should not have been disbelief because it was an inevitable product of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act. It reminds us of the importance of the rules of the electoral game, which is what we are discussing today. That Act is on the statute book so there is no point in going over it. At least it was subject to a good deal of public examination, not least thanks to the reasonably extensive debate it received in your Lordships' House. By contrast, the Government's proposals on electoral registration, though scarcely less important in their potential impact, have received practically no public scrutiny. There was an excellent report by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee of the Commons, a useful seminar recently at the British Academy with experts and academics, and a well informed article-the only one I have read in the press-by Martin Kettle in the Guardian, but that is just about it. If you asked 100 electors what was proposed, I doubt you would get one coherent response.

The desirability of the change in principle is common ground across politics and across parties, with the main aim being to eliminate potential fraud. It is also common ground that the switch is likely to cause a drop in registration. The completeness of the electoral register has been declining gradually for a number of years, from north of 95 per cent at its best to perhaps 91 per cent or 92 per cent today. There was, however, one big drop, and that was when the Thatcher Government introduced the poll tax. According to estimates by the academics Iain Maclean and Jeremy Smith, this can account for slightly more than one-third of the estimated 1 million person shortfall between the electoral register and OPCS population estimates-in other words roughly 300,000 people stripped of the vote.

Estimates of how far registration will fall as a result of individual registration vary for two reasons. First, it depends on how it is done, and I will come back to this. If the Electoral Commission's excellent proposals for a household canvass and for compulsion are followed, there will be much less of a drop than if they are not. Secondly, however, we are in the field of the unknowable, and speculation is inevitable.

There are estimates, however, and they vary from the worrying to the simply terrifying. In Northern Ireland, individual registration caused a shortfall of roughly 11 per cent. In evidence to the Commons committee-the noble Lord, Lord Wills, referred to this in his introduction-the Electoral Commission floated an Armageddon scenario in which all those who do not vote in general elections do not bother to register either. On that basis, the fall would be from 92 per cent to perhaps 60 or 65 per cent-in other words roughly one in three of the people who appear on the register at the moment would not appear. That is not quite as bad as it may sound, because a lot of the people who do not register would not have voted anyway. As completion of the register goes down, the turnout figure will go up-no doubt we shall all congratulate ourselves on that-but it is still a worrying thought that a third of the people now able to vote might not be able to do so.

When a proposal about elections comes before Parliament it is the duty of this House to satisfy itself that what is being done is being done not for partisan reasons but for reasons of merit. The fact that individual registration has been the policy of successive Governments shows that nothing too wicked is being done, but I cannot emphasise strongly enough that the effect of the change in the system will be completely different from what it would have been under the previous Government's proposals, simply because of the parliamentary voting Act.

It is less likely that Labour voters will register than Tories because they are younger, and all the evidence is that younger voters register less. That will not affect the result of the general election much, because most of them would not have voted in any case. However, what it will affect greatly-on the Armageddon scenario -is the partisan distribution of constituencies, because when the Boundary Commission comes to work on the next review of boundaries, it will work on the basis of the register and will be obliged, as we all know, to make sure that constituencies have, plus or minus 5 per cent, the same number of registered electors. Labour constituencies, where registration is likely to be down greatly, will be too small; Tory constituencies, where registration will be reduced by less, will be too big. Labour constituencies will have to be abolished and Tory constituencies increased in number. It is likely that this will help to counter the current anti-Tory bias in the electoral system, which is a very good thing, but it may create a new pro-Tory bias which I am sure the whole House would agree would be as bad a thing as the present pro-Labour bias.

Here, I find myself slightly puzzled, because it sounds from that as if we have to worry greatly about partisanship. But what gives me pause for thought is that this is not an exclusively Tory Government, it is a coalition Government. It is a Tory/Lib Dem coalition. In allowing this change to go forward without the assurances required on compulsory registration and on the household canvass, the Lib Dems are committing electoral suicide. One thing to emerge from the Royal Academy's survey, with all the greatest experts present, is that it is Lib Dem voters-younger, mobile voters-who are the least likely to register, and therefore it is Lib Dem seats, particularly urban Lib Dem seats, that will be reduced most by the boundary redistribution resulting from this register.

Perhaps I may end on a slightly light-hearted note, though it may not seem so light-hearted to the Lib Dem Benches opposite. There are lots of predictions as to how many seats they will win in 2015. Some people think they may have enough to fill a minibus; others think that a London taxicab will suffice. I express no opinion on this, but when one looks to the election after this, and unless the necessary steps are taken to make sure that registration under the new system is adequate as the Electoral Commission proposes, I think that a Smart fortwo should comfortably suffice.