What a democracy should look like

Anyone that wades through the writings in this blog will know that I am a long time electoral reformer. Electoral reform comes in many forms; all aimed to improve engagement, access and accountability.

About time too, writes Matt Dent in reference to Labour’s proposals for House of Lords reform; indeed. The need for reform is acknowledged by most people, although opinions as to the exact nature of the reform vary.

Let me tackle just three key issues with regard to reform: as stated above, we should address engagement, access and accountability.

On engagement. Despite describing ourselves as home to the mother of Parliaments it is obvious to anyone who goes beyond a cursory examination that all is not well with this mother. We still have some seriously important aspects of how this country is run that are not subject to the scrutiny of an election. The democratic deficit, in the humble opinion of this observer, does much damage to trust in the system, and certainly fosters the belief that those in charge are not listening to ordinary people. The House of Lords is an undemocratic body. It contains 678 life peers (appointees), 85 hereditary peers (elected by all hereditary peers, there by fluke of birth), and 26 Lords spiritual (a by-product of our state religion). It is a growing institution – an irony is that whilst David Cameron wanted to reduced the size of the House of Commons, whose members are elected, he is keen on expanding the House of Lords.

Even its name is an affront; Lords and Commoners are terms that belong to the Middle Ages, not the twenty-first century.

Access to the House of Lords comes in three forms: patronage from the Prime Minister, being born into an aristocratic family, advancement through the upper echelons of the Church of England. Access is blocked for everyone else. Whilst there are apologists for this who claim that the upper chamber for Parliament is largely filled with experts and leading lights from the world of business, the arts, politics, etc this largely insults those not considered worthy of consideration. As in so many ways in our society, rewards appear to be given to the already over-rewarded.

Once in the House of Lords removal is all but impossible. Even imprisonment merely interrupts service. One of the keystones in any democracy must be the ability to remove those in charge; the absence of this facility makes for dictatorship. Elected members have to account for themselves on a regular basis to their electorate. As flawed as the electoral system is in the UK, it still requires MPs to persuade voters to back them. Those in the House of Lords are not subject to this inconvenience. Their Lordships do not even have a constituency – they are accountable to none.

The governed should be governed by consent. This consent is conveyed by means of the vote. Whilst elections do not deliver governance that everybody wants, it does deliver governance that the majority want. It also delivers governance that can be changed by those governed, and the governed can become the Government. An open, free, and accountable Government is the only way to stop tyranny.

A campaign that aspires to an extra 1.2 million young voters next year


I welcome any initiative that looks to improve voter engagement, especially amongst the young, and so I was pleased to have discovered The League Of Young Voters. Their aim of trying to get an extra 1.2 million young people voting by the end of next year is one I am happy to endorse.

I have to say, on a sour note, that I do not like the ‘Find Your Perfect Match‘. Aside from being out of date (the preamble begin thus: Elections for the European Parliament are on the 22nd May – match your views against the parties involved to help you choose who to vote for) I find that these sort of tests quite unsatisfying. I vote Labour less based on any individual policy but rather because of their underlying ethos. I imagine this is true of many voters and the parties they align themselves with.

I think fewer questions designed to tease out what appeals to a voter would work better. Some of the questions in the test work for a political obsessive like me, but I can imagine a few scratched heads from others. Questions based on policy rather than principles work only if you have a good grasp of policy and what drives it. The casual observer is not going to understand much beyond headlines.

Anyway, I know little about the organisation or who is behind it, but if engagement and turnout is increased then that can only be a good thing.

They are on Twitter, and there is a European counterpart.


I have been contacted by a number of Southend West residents regarding the proposals to enable the recall of a Member of Parliament. These are addressed to the Southend West MP, and vopied to me for my comments. The emails include this:

I think voters should have the power to vote out MPs who let us down. It should be a decision for us, the voters. It shouldn’t be up to a Westminster quango or other MPs.

So I’d like you to vote for the real recall amendments being tabled by Zac Goldsmith MP. These changes to the government’s plan would put the power in the hands of local voters. Please can you tell me how you will vote? And please will you contact your party leader and express my views to them?

I am all for making MPs truly accountable, but I am not sure the Recall Bill entirely does this. The problem of super-safe seats would still exist, and any Member of Parliament who is a dead cert for re-election is not truly accountable. As a long-standing member of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform I want to change the voting system so that very vote counts. Every MP should have to work for every vote.

That being said, MPs must liable for the sack – especially when they wield this power over so many public sector workers.

So I do support a recall act (with safeguards to stop frivolous or overtly political manoeuvrings), and I hope that this will be followed with some wider ranging reforms that would ensure every voter has equal merit.

Who gives a damn anyway? Inertia, electoral fatalism, or just not enthused by the choices on offer

Total votes at each General Election since 1935 for Labour, the Conservatives, the rest, and those who did not vote

Total votes at each General Election since 1935 for Labour, the Conservatives, the rest, and those who did not vote

This graph shows the votes for Labour and the Conservatives for every General Election since 1935. It also shows the number of votes cast for other parties, and the number of people who did not vote.

What does this tell us?

It shows that for every election both Labour and Conservatives poll somewhere between 8 and 14 million. It shows that in 2010 they polled very similar numbers to what they polled in 1935. Since this is the number of votes (as opposed to vote share), and the electorate has clearly grown since then, where are all the new voters?

Well, the votes for third parties has grown, but this growth has been pretty steady since 1974. The biggest chunk of votes in this category goes to the Liberal Democrats, although nationalist parties also score pretty highly in their respective nations.

What has significantly grown, especially since 1992, is the number of abstentions. The really significant date is 2001, for this is when non-voters outnumbered those who plumped for the governing party.

There were be many reason for abstention, but it broadly divides into two camps: those who could not vote and those who chose not to.

If one looks at the Government party’s vote share as a percentage of all voters (whether cast or not) then one finds the last three Government’s elected with the consent of under 30% of all voters (although ‘consent’ is open to interpretation – abstention can be viewed as consent in some ways). Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide came with just 30.8% of all voters, and you have to go back to 1979 before you find more than a third of the electorate backing the winner.

Interestingly, the largest vote share was for Labour in 1951, an election they actually lost. This is the only occasion since 1935 than any party broke 40% (with 40.3%).

Abstainers accounted for 40.6% of the electorate in 2001, and 34.9% in 2010. Some could argue that those who want a ‘none of the above’ option are already winning.

I think this demonstrates a couple of things. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, is that voters are increasingly dissatisfied with the choice on offer. This would also include those who feel that the alternatives have no chance of being elected, a kind of electoral fatalism gripping vast swathes of the electorate.

I also believe that voting on Thursdays, in polling booths, with pencils, is way past its sell-by date.

Whilst the two big parties are still acquiring far more supporters than the others, the growth in not voting must be cause for concern. When one factors in the numbers of those not registered (perhaps another 3 million) then it becomes a picture of a country being run by a party selected by fewer than one in four people.

Votes@16 now

supertethered_1046On Thursday (September 18th) we have the most important vote within these isles for many years – some say since the union three hundred years ago. The future of the United Kingdom as we know it today is at stake. This vote, on Scottish independence, is significant for electoral reformers too as sixteen and seventeen-year olds are being allowed to take part.

I have long been an advocate for votes@16, and I am calling for the voting age to be lowered for all UK elections.

It is redolent of the American Revolution where the rallying cry was ‘no taxation without representation’.

At 16, young people are considered old enough to get married, start a family, pay taxes, and can join the armed forces – yet they cannot choose their democratic representatives.

If Scottish sixteen-year olds can be entrusted with a say as to the future of their nation then so can their English, Irish and Welsh counterparts. If we want our young people to be responsible citizens then we need to trust them to be a part of our society.

Citizenship lessons have been compulsory at all schools since 2002, and an Electoral Commission poll found that over 70% of 16 and 17 year olds were in favour of voting. In Scotland, where younger voters may sway the referendum results, more than 80% of 16 and 17 year olds had registered to vote.

At a time when we are seeing apathy in electoral politics, and ever lower turnouts, it makes no sense to shut out some of the most enthusiastic Britons from the democratic process.

Southend: polling districts review

Southend-on-Sea Borough Council is conducting a review of polling districts and polling places. This review can be accessed here.

Here is the current make-up of wards in the borough -

ward electors postal voters polling districts population 2011
Belfairs 7573 1078 5 9219
Blenheim Park 8015 952 5 10475
Chalkwell 7432 1002 4 10045
Eastwood Park 7661 1170 4 9364
Kursaal 7934 812 5 11130
Leigh 7558 992 5 10083
Milton 7780 886 6 11063
Prittlewell 7930 1211 5 9971
Shoeburyness 8693 1044 4 11159
Southchurch 7808 1193 4 9710
St Laurence 7671 942 5 9726
St Luke’s 8248 1047 4 11213
Thorpe 7523 1238 5 9215
Victoria 7604 795 4 11004
West Leigh 7170 1038 6 9154
West Shoebury 7679 930 4 10280
Westborough 7691 788 5 10847

My impression is of an increasing number of postal voters, which suggest that we may be able to merge some polling stations. The latest electoral change, a move to individual electoral registration (IER), is largely provoked as a response to electoral fraud – especially amongst postal votes. Therefore, it should be noted that the wards with the fewest numbers of postal voters are all Labour-held ones.

The five smallest registration districts –

380 Leigh WLZ
628 Belfairs WW
792 West Leigh WAZ
801 Milton ELZ
1013 Milton ET

The five largest –

2787 Belfairs WDZ
2664 St Luke’s EEZ
2614 Southchurch EKZ
2506 Shoeburyness EA
2489 Shoeburyness EC

If one uses the 2011 census figure and calculates the elector count as a percentage we get this -:

Victoria 69.10%
Milton 70.32%
Westborough 70.90%
Kursaal 71.28%
St Luke’s 73.56%
Chalkwell 73.99%
West Shoebury 74.70%
Leigh 74.96%
Blenheim Park 76.52%
Shoeburyness 77.90%
West Leigh 78.33%
St Laurence 78.87%
Prittlewell 79.53%
Southchurch 80.41%
Thorpe 81.64%
Eastwood Park 81.81%
Belfairs 82.15%

Whilst this can only be a rough indicator, and we must make allowances for areas which have more families (and therefore greater numbers of children), it still shows where under-registration is most likely to be found. I know from first-hand experience that there are some areas in Milton, for instance, where under-registration is high.




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