Sunday, 6 November 2011

Voting is NOT a lifestyle choice.

Ever heard of IER? I’ll give you a clue it’s not a ‘must have’ computer gadget, the next iphone app or a distant relative of self appointed conscience of the Tory party Iain Duncan Smith.

IER stands for individual Electoral Registration and it is perhaps the most dangerous idea this misguided government has come up with so far. Up to now it has been the responsibility of the ‘head’ of every household in the country to ensure that every eligible adult living in his or her property has registered to vote, the penalty for not doing so being a fine of up to £1000.

Under IER all that will be swept away and it will be up to individuals to register to vote, or not. The vote, something women threw themselves under horses to win and men (and not a few women too) of all nations died in two world wars to protect will stop being a civic duty and become just another ‘lifestyle choice.’

This has attracted expressions of concern from the Electoral Commission, academics, pollsters and, belatedly, the Labour Party, all, it seems, to no avail, the government has set its course and the presence of a huge rock in the way is seen as not being a good enough reason for changing direction.

The latest group to draw a map of the rock in this particular instance is the commons Political and Constitutional Reform committee, who said last week the that introduction of IER could ‘damage democracy.’ I admire their restraint; personally I think it risks destroying it completely.

Why so? It’s very simple, if they are not compelled to do so, register to vote that is whether or not a person actually cast his or her vote is and should remain a matter of choice thousands of people will simply not do so. As the Labour MP and chair of the committee Graham Allen told the BBC ‘Getting people to take responsibility for their own votes is the right thing to do, but it has to be done in the right way.’ In this instance the right way is by making it a requirement to register and educating people in the importance of using their vote.

A spokesman for the Cabinet Office said the government was acting to ‘modernise’ electoral registration and that they were ‘putting safeguards in place to stop people dropping off the register as well as looking at what we can do to increase registration levels.’ This all sounds very proactive but is, in fact, little more than bland nonsense since there are no plans in place to hold a national canvass of registered voters in 2014 so when IER is introduced a year later the information against which the number of voters registered will have to be checked and any targets for increasing it set will not be accurate.

There is no doubt that there is something uncomfortably paternalistic about the ‘head’ of a household registering the voters in his property and I can see the potential for fraud, but IER will not solve the problem in fact it will create even more problems. Not least because whenever I hear a bureaucrat talking about ‘modernisation’ it seems to be an excuse for someone to cry ‘havoc’ and let slip the dogs of incompetence.

What should concern us even more is the fact that, as pointed out in a recent article published in the New Statesman, that under IER the number of people registered to vote could fall from the current level of 90% to 65% or maybe even 60%, meaning that ten million or more voters could vanish from the electoral register and the democratic radar at a stroke. As Jonathan Tongue, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool pointed out in the same article this will be a ‘disaster in terms of shrinking the electoral register and reducing the number of people voting in general elections,’ he goes on to add that ‘If you diminish the number of people registered to vote, you delegitimise the outcome of elections.’

The voters who ‘vanish’ as a result of the introduction of IER will, inevitably, come from the poorest communities, the young, members of ethnic minorities and people living in rented accommodation. They are in effect being told that the political system isn’t interested in their views or their votes so would they please go away.

This should concern everyone outside the richest sections of society. The rich don’t much care about democracy because they can buy whatever they need from an education for their children to health care for themselves when they grow old or fall sick. People on low to middle incomes, the gap between the two groups is shrinking by the day, need it desperately. Without the ability to make their collective voice heard at the ballot box they, we, are sunk because their cries for help will always be drowned out by the bellowing of the corporate giants.

After an ecstasy of dithering the Labour Party has woken up to the importance of this issue, Harriet Harman denounced the introduction of IER from the conference platform and party leader Ed Milliband is said to be ‘steamed up’ about the proposals and is planning an Obama style registration drive in universities and colleges across the country.

Labour are, of course, in something of a difficult position over IER since they came up with the idea of introducing it whilst in government. I also fear that for all the good intentions behind it Red Ed’s attempts to galvanise sceptical students might be unfortunately comic in its delivery; more a timid whisper of ‘do you think we should? than a triumphant shout of ‘yes we can.’

What is deadly serious though is the threat this ill thought out plan poses to our democracy. I don’t take the line that it is part of a right wing conspiracy since this government lacks the organisational skills to mount one, it is, instead, the product of an out of touch political class that masks is inability to connect with the public with endless fiddling about with processes.

IER will damage the legitimacy of our democratic process, whether your views belong to the left or the right if you believe in the right of the people to choose how and by whom they are governed call for it to be abandoned before it is too late.

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