Last Tuesday’s vote in the House of Commons on parliamentary boundaries was a good victory for the Labour Party. The vote meant that the advantage which the Conservatives had planned for themselves at the next General Election in 2015 was removed. The bookies have adjusted their odds on the next election accordingly.
But it would be wrong to believe that the Tories have given-up the fight or have stopped trying to manipulate electoral arrangements. Immediately after the vote on Tuesday, another short debate took place on further amendments from the House of Lords on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill which had earlier been changed. This time, one of the amendments concerned the start date for individual electoral registration (IER). The Tories had proposed a further ‘compromise’ amendment, under pressure from Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Although sounding very technical, IER is a vitally important issue and it goes to the heart of our representative democracy. It is about how the electoral register is drawn-up or, simply put, who can and cannot vote.
Most commentators believe that when the change from the current system of household registration to individual registration is made, the number of people on the register, and therefore eligible to vote, will fall significantly. This of itself would hit Labour badly, but there would be a double whammy because, in future, parliamentary boundaries must be of equal size and will be determined by the number of people on the electoral register. In December 2015, full IER will be introduced and the next boundary review will be based on that register. The consequences for Labour could be serious.
In the Commons, and then in the Lords, Labour argued for a delay of one year in the introduction of IER to December 2016. That would have allowed an extra year to get more people on the register and would have allowed the next boundary review to be carried-out on a more complete register.
The Government did in fact propose a change to the Bill, making December 2016 the start date for IER. But, in proposing the amendment in both the Lords and the Commons, the Government made it clear that the change was more apparent than real. Despite changing the start date, the Government said that they were still committed to the introduction of IER in December 2015 and ensured that the Bill had a mechanism to allow them to do this. That reversal however can only come about if the Conservatives are still in power after the next election.
That is why I say that although the Tories may have suffered a significant defeat last Tuesday, they have not abandoned their attempts to twist and distort electoral arrangements for their long-term advantage. What is now important is that Labour does not rest on its laurels but continues to take the fight to the Government and begins serious work on what needs to be done with regard to parliamentary boundaries and electoral registration after 2015.
Shadow Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform and MP for Caerphilly