A voter registration drive? It should have started three years ago (when Miliband said it would)

16th January, 2015 8:13 am

Later today Ed Miliband will speak in Sheffield, and make an appeal to Britain’s young voters. The location is no accident of course. Nearly five years after Nick Clegg betrayed millions of students on tuition fees, Miliband has the Lib Dem leader in his sights, in his own backyard. As we reported over the Christmas holidays, some Labour figures think that the party’s popular local candidate can Oliver Coppard might have a chance of toppling Clegg in his Hallam constituency.


Today‘s launch is part and parcel of a series of appeals to younger voters that Miliband and Labour will be making in the weeks and months ahead – building on the good work that Ivan Lewis was conducting over the summer. A youth manifesto is on the way, as well as confirmation of the party’s new Higher Education policy. As part of the electorate that’s more pro-Labour than some older segments – yet which is less likely to vote – the youth vote has quite rightly been identified by the party as crucial in the battleground seats.

But one aspect of Miliband’s speech today stands out – the key announcement on electoral registration, and re-registering the million people who have dropped off the register in the past year. Here’s what Miliband will say:

“In the last year almost one million people have fallen off the Electoral Register, hundreds of thousands of them young people. This is a direct consequence of the government’s decision to ignore warnings that rushing through new individual registration reforms would damage democracy. It has…We will not allow this scandal to happen and no right-thinking person should either. Labour will now lead a national mission to stop young people being denied a voice at in this election. And today I urge universities, local councils, and young people themselves to play their part. Let’s work together to register young people to vote and make sure they don’t lose their voice.”

He’s right to raise this as a serious issue. A million people dropping off the register is not only bad for Labour but for our democracy too. As Tim Montgomerie has noted, Britain risks becoming a gerontocracy(£), where the old and the wealthy have an even more disproportionate say than they do today. Miliband is also right to say that the government’s disastrous individual registration legislation has caused a decline in electoral registration (it was, after all, part of their attempt to alter the electorate and even constituencies themselves).

And yet what’s depressing about Miliband’s announcement – his call for a “national mission” led by Labour to register voters – is that it’s so late in the day. The election is just over three and a half months away. The deadline for voters to register is even sooner still. If a million people have dropped off the electoral register, then it may well be too late to get most of them back. And how are Labour candidates (told to focus on those who have registered) meant to register the unregistered in their own communities.

If only someone had focussed on electoral registration sooner.

Alas they did. We’ve covered the risks for years on LabourList – for example, Paul Wheeler wrote about it here, here and here. Senior MPs have talked about the risks on LabourList too – John Spellar (along with Council leader Darren Cooper) wrote about it here, Stephen Twigg wrote about it here and here, and just a few weeks ago Liz Kendall made registering young people to vote her New Year resolution. And it’s right for Labour people to worry about a decline in voter registration, because it’s a double whammy for the party – as both new voters and those who fall off the register (especially young people in shared accommodation) are (you guessed it) more likely to vote Labour.

However, one of the first people in the Labour Party to really focus on the need for electoral registration was Miliband himself. Back in May of 2012 he announced “the biggest drive to register new voters in a generation” in a speech to Progress conference.

It never materialised. Or at least I’ve never seen it in my local area or anywhere else I’ve campaigned. And none of the candidates, MPs or staffers I speak to on a regular basis have mentioned it either. So I presume it was either a good intention that went unfulfilled, or it was quietly dumped because someone decided it wasn’t worth doing. Like some other big promises in recent years on party organisation (anyone else remember “nothing less than the refoundation of the Labour Party”?) it talked big but walked small.

If as a party we had started three years ago on the long, hard (and nationwide) task of registering people to vote – alongside regular canvassing as many local CLPs already do – we could have put a sizeable dent in that million who have fallen off the register, as well as adding potential Labour voters who’d never been registered before. We also could have embedded voter registration into our core campaigns. The community organising work of Arnie Graf could have been leveraged to register the unregistered and give them a stake and a say in their local communities (where Graf is right now we do not know, but that’s for another day).

With just over 100 days until election day a voter registration drive is still worthwhile, and the disenfranchisement of a million people that this government has overseen is worth attacking (not to mention proposals from some Tories to stop Commonwealth voters from voting). But it feels like it’s far too late to stop the worst of the damage. It’s worth noting that the party revealed a strategy for getting students to register to vote back in September (so perhaps some of this voter registration work has been going on since then?) but students are of course only a fraction of the missing million.

If only the Labour Party had shown ambition on voter registration when Miliband first mentioned it in such lofty tones, we might already have more voters registered – and more votes in the Labour column come May 7th. Now, the challenge of re-registering the missing voters – nevermind the new voters Miliband once aimed to find – is a tough one indeed.

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  • Dave Postles

    Good job Unite has been concerned about this issue for some time now, actively encouraging people to register to vote. Unions 1 Labour Party -1.

    • Danny

      38 Degrees as well.

  • David Pickering

    Typically for Miliband, he gobs off with good intention about the “the biggest drive to register new voters in a generation” in 2012, and then does nothing about it, until it finally dawns on him that he doesn’t have the votes to win.

    Either Miliband thinks words are the same as action, or he’s an utter incompetent. I’m better both.

    • CoolJHS

      Clearly no where near your level of incompetence!!!

      • David Pickering

        I’d love to hear how you think I’m incompetent.

  • Steve Stubbs

    “Labour will now lead a national mission to stop young people being denied a voice at in this election.”

    The only people denying young people the right to vote is themselves. If they cannot be arsed to register, it is not the fault of anyone else.

    • leslie48

      Come off it we live in a democracy yes…but the way the media and schooling is set up most kids at 18 know nothing of politics or voting and that is partly deliberate. Most kids who leave school know little modern history, the struggles over the last 200 years or so , of revolutions, of the struggle of their fathers for decently paid jobs, of the role of the welfare state… This is deliberate if you understand politics you may usurp the power and privilege of the wealthy elites and the upper middle class ( whose kids do know a lot about politics as its part of their cultural capital)

      • Steve Stubbs

        Wow. A conspiracy theory! Falls down of course as the majority of children are taught by the members of the NUT and other unions who are more left wing than most. Most kids know nothing about history as they have absolutely no interest in it. Like most politicians, which is why history is always repeating itself.

        • leslie48

          I am giving you an interpretation of why English kids ( less so other countries like France or Germany or Scotland) know little about politics and history. The NUT bit is meaningless as they do not dictate the curriculum nor are they all left wing nor can such matters be delivered by high school professionals in a biased way..

          Those kids who do A Level Humanities subjects may learn something but the vast majority of 18 year olds could not explain the difference between Left, Centre or Right Wing as politics is NOT part of the school curriculum. Is it deliberate – yes its part of that old english ruling class mentality which wants to keep people ignorant of politics, sociology and economics ( unless they are like the Eton boys and get to do PPE at Oxford.)

  • treborc1

    I think a Million would be an understatement and with each person now having to register, not the house hold I can see the numbers registering dropping .

    I’ve not registered but since I’ve got until I think April 20th I might but to be honest whom do I vote for, the only party actually talking about me is Welsh labour and the UKIP lot.

    Hell of a choice to get a party that speaks of people like me I’ve got to vote UKIP.

    And Welsh labour election is in 2016.

  • Grouchy Oldgit

    The main parties offer little for society’s most vulnerable. Hardly surprising they lack motivation to vote.

    • RWP

      If they did vote than the main parties would have to start to listen and offer them more.

  • MonkeyBot5000

    I never fill out any form that threatens me before I’ve even opened the envelope.

    You can come round and threaten me in person or wait for me to register on my own time scale.

  • Jen

    In our constituency with its high student population we’ve been pushing voter registration constantly for years.

    The factor missing in the analysis above is that the students who need to be registered for this year’s election only moved to their current addresses in September or October 2014 so any work we did in the last academic year is effectively undone every September. With the delay in the register being updated, it’s been very difficult to do anything real about getting people registered until now.

    If, like me, you feel this is a really important issue please join campaigners in these badly affected university cities and help us spread the word. We’ll welcome you to Cardiff Central any time, any day between now and the 7th May!

  • Ian

    Bit unfair for the author and some of my fellow respondents to be pointing the finger at Ed for this. He correctly flagged this problem up in 2012 so WHY hasn’t Labour HQ done something about it?

    As far as I am aware Ed does not appoint the personnel at Labour HQ, nor does he manage it on a day to day basis. It is those heads which should be rolling.

    • David Pickering

      Miliband is the leader of the party. The idea is simple enough. If he wants it to happen, he must make his employees do it.

      • Ian

        Ed is far too busy writing letters to civil servants, attending rallies in France, writing to David Cameron, making relaunch speeches etc to be bothered with the day-to-day stuff. Some people are ideas guys and some have to follow. It is the responsibility of those employed at Labour HQ to follow Ed’s wishes. He shouldn’t have to stand over them – they ARE adults, I presume?

        • David Pickering

          I can’t work out if you’re taking the piss, or you’re blindly loyal to Ed.

          • Ian

            It’s one of those!

            But consider: if you go into your local Tesco and the shelves are bare is that the fault of the MD or has he been let down by local management/staff? The people running constituency Labour Parties don’t seem to have much of a clue and they are presumably guided by Labour HQ.

            There seem to be a lot of people in the Party who are not too bothered whether Ed succeeds or not.

    • Steve Stubbs

      Who leads labour? The buck stops there.

  • DanFilson

    I think the key to voter registration is having a Town Hall set up tbat is staffed sufficiently and knows what it’s doing when it comes to the job. But there are special factors worth considering.

    The first is voter turnover. This doesn’t just happen in university towns (where in any event some students register at their home addresses and vote by post). In my area there’s a 20% ANNUAL turnover of voters, so I do not quite see how a massive voter registration drive in 2012 would help with the current situation. That 20% conceals that some households are as stable as elsewhere in England and the likelihood on non-registration is low, but others turnover 100% in months, let alone years.

    Another issue is that 2015 is a General Election year only in some parts of the UK, with no local elections except the occasional by- election. Thus in London we have the Mayor of London election in 2016, the EU referendum (if it happens) in 2017 and the London Borough elections in 2018. In all these pretty well all residents can vote. However in a General Election those who are not UK citizens (or Irish or Commonwealth citizens) cannot vote however long they have lived here and despite thrm paying all their taxes here. In my area we have over 10% Portuguese and Brazilians in some polling districts. I see no reason, given we are in the EU, why the Portuguese should be expected to firehouse the nationality of their birth. But they are in the unhappy position of the American revolutionaries at the time ofthe Declaration of Independence of having Taxation without Representation.

    I mentioned the local authority role. This year those who were on last years register roll forward automatically if their details natch other data like council tax, benefit claims etc. This matching exercise has dome bias towards the stable households rather than the mobile ones, in my view. But those who weren’t matched and thus weren’t rolled forward automatically were sent a letter explaining the need to register individually and, I believe, provide their National Insurance number. This may cause those without NiNos, who may well be part of what used to be called the black economy which is now the informal economy or done such, to go off or stay off the Register of Voters. And of course there should be diligent local authority paid staff going out doing door to door checks to locate those missed off the Register. While Labour Party activists may well find and get registered many voters during door to door canvassing, I suspect it’s the LA registration process that is St least as important. Though I know that in May 2014 we were identifying a log if voters not in the register during canvassing.

    • MonkeyBot5000

      I see no reason, given we are in the EU, why the Portuguese should be
      expected to firehouse the nationality of their birth. But they are in
      the unhappy position of the American revolutionaries at the time ofthe
      Declaration of Independence of having Taxation without Representation.

      A bit over dramatic. They are free to become UK citizens if they want to vote here.

      • DanFilson

        Exactly the response I got last time I floated this. Turn it on its head. You’re 48, you get a job in Frankfurt, buy a house, register for taxes. A dozen or more years on, you’re still there and thinking of retiring .. By staying in Frwnkfurt. You’re still British to the core, speak English with your family at home, and rally have no more connection with Britain save that you might conceivably return “home” later to maintain closer contact with grandchildren. You have been able to vote in German local elections which didn’t concern you much at first. But you have never been able to vote in Federal elections bug instead could have voted in UK general elections by post for a party with whom you’ve lost contact on issues you are no longer familiar with. Why should you surrender your UK passport to have any meaningful vote on the taxes you pay?

        • Robert Kaye

          You wouldn’t have to. Germany, like the UK and almost every other EU country, allows dual citizenship. In that situation you could apply for German citizenship, as could your Portuguese friends in the UK. Brazil also allows dual citizenship.

          • DanFilson

            £906 fee in the UK. You can see why my Portuguese constituents mostly don’t.

          • MonkeyBot5000

            If they can afford to buy a house in London, they can find £906 to become a citizen.

        • Steve Stubbs

          In the case you make, why do you need to keep a British passport? For some time you have lived there, worked there and plan to retire there. To asll intnets and purposes you are a German citizen. Register as such and vote there. I don’t want those who live elsewhere having a say in setting my national domestic agenda.

        • MonkeyBot5000

          Exactly the response I got last time I floated this.

          And exactly the response you’ll get the next time you float it as well. If you want to have a say in the club rules, become a member.

          Turn it on its head.

          It looks the same both ways up. If I move to Germany, buy a house and intend to retire there, but refuse to become a citizen and still cling to my UK passport like it’s sacred, I’m obviously not that serious about becoming part of German society, so why should I get to vote there.

  • Populous56

    Mark is sadly right that it will extremely difficult to improve registration in time for the General Election. I have no doubt that politcal parties, trades unions and other civic organisations will do their best.

    ultimately tbe problems rests with tbe way tbat this country and specifically tbe Electoral Commission have gone about introducing individual electoral registration. They have ensurerd the worst of all worlds.

    We now have a registration system that will cost millions more and end up with a worst outcome. Whilst i understand tbat in the run up to tbe General Election parties will try and highlight tbe political consequences we need to focus on how we can improve the system of registration for all future electiions – not forgetting tbe impact of jury service and future boundary reviews for parliament and local councils.

  • Tom Sanders

    Oh well better late than never. I guess getting the youth vote out will help the Greens anyway.

  • robertcp

    It will be interesting to see how many people vote this year.

  • leslie48

    If the Labour party can’t get students and young folk to resister that it’s lost the plot. For this was a prime reason why Obama beat the old Republicans. Obama’s victory was built on registration, detail of voters and organisation.


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