diamond geezer

 Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Today is a defining day in British electoral history. It's in several people's interests that you haven't noticed.

If you're on the electoral register today, then your presence will contribute to the redrawing of constituency boundaries for the 2020 General Election. If you're not on the electoral register today, then constituency boundaries will be drawn assuming you don't exist. You are on the electoral register today, aren't you?

I assume I am. I got a polling card for May's election, and I was on the list when I turned up to vote. But being on the list back then is no cast iron guarantee of being on it now. Say you've moved house since, or say you were a student at the time and have since left university or moved to digs in a different part of town. Checking whether or not you're absolutely definitely on the electoral register isn't quite as simple as you might hope. Here's the official advice.
If you are not sure if you are already registered, contact your local electoral registration office.
To find your local electoral registration office you enter your postcode in a box on the aboutmyvote.co.uk website, which in my case directs me to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. There's then an address to write to, an email address to contact and a telephone number to ring, but there's no instant means of checking whether you're on or off. That's probably as it should be, given the sensitivity of this identity-related information, but I bet it's enough to deter a large proportion of those who get this far from making contact.

If you think you're not on the list, the government provides a Register My Vote service. This sounds good, although there is a warning up front that it'll take about five minutes and you'll need to know your National Insurance number. If you choose to proceed there are 11 questions to answer, starting off with Where do you live?. Next up is What is your nationality? then What is your date of birth? then What is your full name?, and I wonder how many potential voters are still engaged by this point.

In previous years voter registration was by household, with every home receiving a form which it was then one person's responsibility to fill in. This year that's changing, indeed has just changed, so that now everybody of potential voting age has to register individually. It's called Individual Electoral Registration, the idea being to drag registration into the modern age rather than rely on some Victorian door-to-door method, the likes of which other countries in Europe have long abandoned.

IER is more responsible and should be more accurate, say supporters, and they're particularly keen to point out how it will limit potential Tower-Hamlets-style electoral fraud. But there are issues with transferring across from the old system to the new, in particular to avoid genuine voters falling off the electoral roll in the process, and all the signals are that the government is moving too fast.

Last year every single voter on the existing electoral roll was checked against the Department for Work and Pensions’ database, and everybody who matched was duly validated. Following further checks at local council level, a total of 87% of the existing electorate had been matched. But this percentage varied considerably geographically, so that (for example) the match for the Prime Minister's local authority of West Oxfordshire was over 90%, while that for Tower Hamlets was under 80%. You can check your local area here (remembering that the figures are about a year out of date).

The remaining unmatched 13% were contacted by letter to try to move things on, reducing omissions still further. But it's estimated that up to 1.9 million voters are about to fall off the register, concentrated in particular on those in multiple occupancy housing, regular home movers and students. Students are a particular issue because universities used to register them en masse and now they can't, and how many freshers are going to think to sign up for a vote in their first term, especially when there are no elections on the horizon?

And this truly matters. You might be thinking "well if they can't be bothered, why should the rest of us care?" But it matters because of the way constituencies are going to be divided up in the future, meaning that if people local to you fail to sign up, you locality will be under-represented when the boundaries are drawn. Originally the cut-off date for transfer was going to be next December, but the government exercised its right to bring it forward by a year, against the advice of the Electoral Commission, claiming enough people had signed up for the switch to be viable.
"Every single genuine elector who's out there will have been confirmed and put on the register," John Penrose, minister for constitutional reform, told the BBC. "The only ones therefore taken off will be people who've either moved house, or died or in some cases never existed, because they were put on the register fraudulently."
The coalition government attempted to set in train a redrawing of the UK's constituencies in 2011, but this was thwarted when the Liberal Democrats voted against in retaliation for lack of support over House of Lords reform. Had the so called Sixth Periodic Review been completed then the 2015 General Election would have been held along these new lines, with a total of 600 new MPs rather than the current 650. Reducing the number of MPs by 8% would assist austerity by cutting salaries and expenses in proportion, but this was by no means the most important intended outcome.

The upcoming boundary change review is specifically intended to divide up the national electorate more equally. At present English constituencies vary widely in size, from the Isle of Wight which has 107572 voters to Wirral West with 53877. And yet each sends one MP to Parliament, so how can this be fair? In addition larger UK constituencies tend to be more rural, while smaller constituencies tend to be urban, or Scottish, or island-based, or more than one of the above. A rebalancing is long overdue, indeed previous administrations have merely tinkered with the numbers, but the rules for the latest review go one step beyond.
• There must be exactly 600 constituencies.
• The electorate in each constituency must be within 5% (above or below) of the average constituency size.
• Only the Isle of Wight, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland are allowed to be exceptions.
The basis of the previous review was that new constituencies must have no fewer than 72810 voters and no more than 80473. This range might sound generously broad, but in fact only 30% of existing constituencies fit the quota. And it's not possible simply to tweak the other 70%, the entire electoral map of Great Britain has to be thrown up into the air and recarved differently. Those who saw the last set of proposals weren't necessarily pleased.

Existing constituencies had been replaced by completely new areas bearing no resemblance to the old, nor even in many cases to high level administrative boundaries. So total was the geospatial surgery required that the Boundary Commission felt compelled to tell complainants that "the defined number of constituencies and the 5% electoral parity target are statutory requirements that it must apply and that it has absolutely no discretion in respect of either matter."

For example, rather than splitting Tower Hamlets in two, which would have been perfectly possible within the 5% limit, the Commission was forced to look at the wider picture and incorporate bits into neighbouring boroughs. The only way the numbers stacked up was to create a new constituency spanning the River Lea coupling Bow with far-flung Forest Gate, while Bethnal Green was joined across the borough boundary to Dalston and Shoreditch. Create similarly distorted shapes across the country and you have a recipe for mathematical precision, but diminished neighbourhood identity.

But those won't be the constituencies in 2020 because the range isn't going to be 72810 to 80473. Instead when the Commission starts work again next Easter it'll have to base its figures on today's electoral register, defined by Individual Electoral Registration. And those missing millions mean the target number will be lower, so the range will be lower, and the whole of the country will need to be chopped up differently again. Expect your local constituency to change in extent, possibly dramatically, and for 50 MPs to find themselves without a chair when the music stops.

Most significantly of all, those variations in registration across the country will end up being reflected in the new layout. Our new constituencies will be based on the existing electoral roll rather than actual population, which means some parts of the country will do rather better than they should, and others rather worse. More specifically urban and socially deprived areas where registration is low will be under-represented, while affluent areas where registration is high will have disproportionate representation.

For example, almost everyone in West Oxfordshire who should be represented will be, because they signed up before today's 1st December deadline. But Tower Hamlets will be under-represented in the future, because thousands of its residents haven't registered, and Hackney's shortfall is predicted to be even greater. Indeed London is expected to be an overall loser in the upcoming boundary review, losing more MPs than should proportionally be the case. It's a similar story in university towns such as Bath and Aberystwyth, with marginal Cambridge on course to suffer voter loss as high as 17%.
London was set to lose five seats under the draft Boundary Review, but with an estimated 400,000 people likely to drop off the register in December this could rise to eight to ten seats. This number is disproportionately larger than the rest of the country with London set to lose 6.9% of its registered voters overall, the second largest loss being in Scotland at 5.5%.
And what all this means, quite irrefutably, is an electoral advantage to the Conservatives. Areas of the country keen to appear on the electoral roll tend to vote blue, while areas with transient urban populations tend to vote red. The existing system is biased in a different way, with a majority of smaller constituencies in urban areas giving Labour an unwarranted leg up. But basing our new constituencies on the number of people who can be bothered to sign up rather than actual population tips the balance unfairly in the opposite direction.

It does look highly suspicious when a government rushes through legislation shortly after coming to power which redefines the electoral system in its favour, then speeds up the introduction of a registration system that will disadvantage the opposition even further, ensuring that the latter feeds into the former just in time to redraw the battleground for the next General Election. And sure, on current evidence it looks like Labour is perfectly capable of losing that election all by itself. But with the Conservatives permanently shifting the constituency goalposts, there's every chance that no other party will ever be able to cross the line again.

Today is a defining day in British electoral history. It's in several people's interests that you haven't noticed.


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