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Antifrank on the impact of the big Lords Individual electoral registration vote

October 31st, 2015

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It could be more significant than tax credits

The House of Lords revolt on tax credits has got a huge amount of attention.  Less newsworthy, because it didn’t succeed, was an attempt in the House of Lords to delay the introduction of individual electoral registration by 12 months beyond the government’s proposed timetable.  The implications of that vote, however, may be more far-reaching.  What effect will it have?

This post is going to be both long and technical.  That is unavoidable, I’m afraid.

What’s new?

As a nation, we are moving to a system where each voter is personally responsible for registering to vote individually.  The initial gathering of the data was undertaken in 2014, but no names were removed from the register for the general election this year without it being positively verified that it was correct to do so.  The verification process is ongoing and by June this year the number of unconfirmed entries had been reduced from 6 million to 1.9 million.  The process of automatically removing unconfirmed data is to take place next.  Originally it was scheduled for the end of 2016 but the government chose (as it was entitled to do under the legislation) to bring this forward by 12 months by statutory instrument.  It was this statutory instrument that was at the centre of the debate this week.

The government’s decision was against the advice of the Electoral Commission.  Leaving the politics to one side, the question is whether it is more important to have an electoral register in December 2015 with as little inaccurate data as possible or to have an electoral register which is as complete as possible.  The Electoral Commission preferred the latter, given where the data verification exercise is at present.

What is the significance of the December 2015 date?  In the short term, there is a round of elections taking place in May 2016.  These will be conducted on the December 2015 electoral register.  There is, however, a much more important use of this particular electoral register – it will be used as the foundation of the Boundary Commission’s work for the 2020 constituency boundaries.  As such, it will have a direct impact on the next election.

Who is at risk of dropping off the register?

Irritatingly, despite providing a report of nearly 60 pages, the Electoral Commission did not deign to publish the detailed data on the verification process by council, which was up to date as at June 2015.  To their great credit, Hope Not Hate elicited this from the Electoral Commission and published it themselves in an appendix to their own report.

As can be seen, the rate at which the electoral register is being cleaned up is progressing at quite different rates both between regions and within regions.  One can accept that it is harder for inner city London councils (with young and highly mobile populations) to verify their data than rural councils (with older and more settled councils) and still wonder why Hackney had 22.9% of their data unverified while Islington and Tower Hamlets had 6% and 8.2% of their data unverified respectively.  There seems no good reason why Oxford should have only 6.8% of their data unverified while Cambridge had 17% of their data unverified.  Lincoln, a council that has a fair sized student population, has only 0.35% of their data unverified.  Council incompetence or lethargy seems to be playing a very substantial part in failing to get the data cleared up.

Hope Not Hate rather breathlessly describes the potential impact of bringing forward individual electoral registration as “the greatest disenfranchisement in British history”.  Is that true?  This is where it gets complicated.

What might this mean in practice?

Here’s the position as it stood in May 2015 (the voter figures are Hope Not Hate’s), with the rough seat allocation for a 600 seat Parliament that this would produce:

Boundary Review

The right hand column is rough and ready, but suitable for present purposes.

The effect of differential drop-off between regions is outweighed by wider population movements.  Scotland actually increases its seat count even as Parliament shrinks, despite the high drop-off of unregistered voters, presumably because of the increase in voter registration prompted by the referendum campaign.  The north east is looking at a sharp drop in its seat count despite having the best clear-up rate.  So the effect as between the regions is not all that great, if truth be told.

It’s a different story when we come to look at intra-regional trends.  This is especially important in London.  Six London boroughs have unverified records of 10% or more.  At the other extreme, Richmond-upon-Thames has only 0.96% of records unverified.  There seems no doubt that inner London boroughs are finding this a tougher exercise.  These boroughs are solidly Labour, so if their representation is weighted down, this is bad news for Labour.

Barking & Dagenham, Camden, Greenwich, Hackney, Haringey, Islington, Lambeth, Lewisham, Redbridge, Southwark and Tower Hamlets, are currently covered by 31 contiguous constituencies, all of which are held by Labour.  On current numbers of registered voters, they would be reduced to 24 constituencies.  This would be a dramatic shrinking in the weighting of these constituencies within London, all of which would be felt by Labour.

The effect outside London would be less stark because the bulk of the worst-performing councils for registration reconciliation are in London.  The same effect can be seen on a much lesser scale in Birmingham, the greater Manchester area and Sheffield, which may result in Labour losing a seat or two in each of these localities.

Some university towns would find themselves attached to slightly larger constituencies than they otherwise would have been (though Durham, Exeter, Lancaster and Bath & North East Somerset don’t seem to have had the same problems that Cambridge had in tracking down student records).  This would make a handful of constituencies a little harder for Labour to take.

Taken as a whole, the effect of bringing voter reconciliation to a halt in December is unlikely to be conclusive of the general election even on the basis of the June figures.  It may put Labour at a disadvantage of an additional ten to fifteen seats – a handicap, but not a noose around their necks.

That is not the end of the story though.  The data clean-up process is continuing.  Let’s assume for now that it will continue on the same course up to the cut-off date.  From July to December 2014, 3.1 million records were cleared up, resulting in a further 1.7 million people being verified as being on the electoral roll.  From December 2014 to May 2015, 1 million more records were cleared up, resulting in a further 460,000 people being verified as being on the electoral roll.  The rate of clear-up is slowing down and proportionately fewer records are being verified as being correct.

In the final phase if the course does not change, we might expect a further 500,000 records or so of the remaining 1.9 million unverified entries to be cleared up, resulting in perhaps a further 200,000 people being added to the electoral register.  If so, that means that at the cut-off date 1.7 million records will drop off the register (only 300,000 of those being verified as incorrect).  This final batch of verified data will be disproportionately in the areas which are currently lagging, flattening the current favour towards rural areas and against urban areas.  New voters will be added to the register, particularly in university towns.

If this trajectory is followed in the final clean-up, my educated guess is that the additional disadvantage that Labour would be under would be fewer than ten seats.  So not all that dramatic, really.

What can Labour do about this?

But the future is not yet written.  Similar alarms were posted before the general election about voter registration.  In the end, we saw a huge surge in registration, with more than 2 million registrations in the last month before the deadline.

With organisation, voter registration could be boosted again.  If Labour were really organised, they could turn individual electoral registration to their advantage, bolstering the size of the electorate in the seats where they most need it and enthusing younger voters.  That is after all Labour’s electoral strategy under Jeremy Corbyn, isn’t it?

Jeremy Corbyn has just set up a new grouping, Momentum.  One of its aims is to “Organise in every town, city and village to create a mass movement for real progressive change”.  If it’s looking for somewhere to start, campaigning to get voters through the process of individual electoral registration might be a very good place indeed.  Over to you, Mr Corbyn.

Antifrank