The government are planning to make millions of people unable to vote, disengaged and unrepresented

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The implementation of the Individual Electoral Register is the biggest change to the way we enable people to vote since the introduction of the universal franchise. It will have a profound effect on our politics and democracy. Yet this government is rushing ahead with the changes, ignoring widespread concern.

The electoral register performs a hugely important civic function. Beyond allowing our citizens the ability to vote, the register affects the wider political settlement. It ensures  citizens are counted for the drawing of boundaries – by ward and constituency.

It is hugely difficult for political parties to contact and attempt to persuade people who are not registered to vote. This lends itself to further political disengagement and a widening of the gap between the public and the democratic process. Beyond politics, the electoral register also feeds the selection of our juries.

The current system is by no means perfect. The 2011 Electoral Register, the last that can be directly compared with census data, showed the huge disparity in representation for different groups across the country. Around half of 19-24 years olds were not registered, compared to 6% of those aged over 65. Fewer people from BME communities were on the register compared to white people. 56% of people living in private rented homes were counted, compared to nearly 90% of homeowners.

Individual Electoral Registration has now been piloted by the government, attempting to match people with data at the Department for Work and Pensions. These pilots confirm the fear that large swathes of the country could be overlooked and that there could be a further disparity of voice between different groups  in our democracy.

8.7 million of the electorate could not be matched against the records held by the Department for Work and Pensions.  Our cities are losing out. An astonishing 26% of voters in London may not be eligible to vote in the Mayoral elections in 2016. Our young people will also suffer as the figures at our universities were remarkably low.  In Lancaster University – an electoral ward – just 0.1% of the current electorate could be matched to the DWP database. All the statistics and evidence suggests that if we continue as we are, young, urban populations will be disproportionately affected by these dramatic changes.

The Government should think again about rushing the implementation of these reforms and beginning the introduction of IER next year. The last Labour government set out cautious measures, implementing a voluntary system till late in 2015. We also said that we could delay this further if the Electoral Commission had concerns. This is a sensible approach to reform – ensuring there is no effect on the 2015 general election and that the processes of electoral registration can be relied upon.

This Government has scrapped these safeguards, and are set to begin the process next year. There are real concerns the I.T. infrastructure is not ready, the training for Electoral Administrators is not sufficient, and that measures for engagement in urban metropolitan areas are up to the scale of the challenge. This concern was demonstrated in a ballot of grassroot members of the Association of Electoral Administrators in London on their confidence as to whether IER would work when implemented next year. The result was overwhelmingly negative.

Even from Opposition, Labour can act to ensure as many people as possible are registered. Colleagues, such as Chris Ruane MP, have consistently emphasised concerns with under-registration and the effect this has on our representative politics, urging others to take action to ensure high levels of registration. John Spellar MP has undertaken innovative work with his council of Sandwell to develop procedures for trying to get citizens registered to vote at various points of interaction.  In the coming weeks I will be working with colleagues, Councils, MPs and PPCs to do all we can to maximise the completeness and accuracy of the register.

We will never create the One Nation politics we need with millions of people unable to vote, disengaged and unrepresented. The government needs to ensure their measures don’t make the situation worse.

Stephen Twigg is Shadow Minister for Constitutional Reform

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