Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has been forced to reverse a planned change to the electoral registration system, which experts have warned may remove millions of voters – including hundreds of thousands of students – from the voting register.
The Independent Electoral Commission, the Labour Party and various pressure groups have attacked the plans. The proposals were designed to make registering to vote a voluntary matter, removing the current maximum £1,000 fine for those who did not comply with electoral officers.
The Labour Party declared that the plan could deny millions of working class people the vote and might disproportionately affect younger voters. However, Cabinet Office Minister, Mark Harper, accused the Labour Party of hypocrisy after backing Individual Voter Registration while in office.
Clegg’s move came before the second reading of the bill after pressure from members and independent groups. Supporters of the pro-reform pressure group, Unlock Democracy, delivered over 2,000 letters to MPs. Shadow Lord Chancellor, Sadiq Khan, warned that the changes would lead to the “mass disenfranchisement of some of our already most marginalised citizens”.
Among the plans were further proposals for a partial ‘registration canvass’, which would be instated before the 2015 general election as part of the Government’s cost-cutting program. Figures estimate that alongside the removal of the fine for not registering, between three and ten million voters could be dropped from the list as a result. In addition, the Electoral Registration Bill would switch from the current ‘family’ registration system, in which an entire household is registered under one family member, to a system based on individual registration, a move that is hoped to increase the register’s accuracy. Students may comprise a large number of those who register, but the NUS has yet to comment on the matter.
Some have noted that the subsequent redrawing of boundaries may slash the number of Labour seats, making the Conservatives’ chances of achieving a future majority more likely. Journalist Mehdi Hassan has dubbed such a move as a prime example of ‘gerrymandering’.
Though the plans are aimed at saving money, the Government’s own White Paper states that ‘the estimated cost for implementing [individual registration] is £108.3m’. Another criticism of the reforms has been that voting will seemingly become viewed as a choice rather than a civic duty. In a statement to the current affairs website Politics.co.uk, Shadow Justice Minister, Wayne David, spoke of the new system: “Sorry, you’re a citizen of this country, but you are not able to vote”.
The Private Members’ Bill, which has the backing of the Government, follows controversial legislation that will cut the number of MPs by 50, as well as redraw constituency boundaries. A parliamentary motion condemning the changes recently garnered over 100 parliamentary signatures.
Clegg’s about-face may be perceived as a concession to an increasingly disgruntled party base, but the next few weeks will be pivotal in defining what the future bill may become.