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.



IER – the eulogy from SBC, and my worries

There was a recent Southend-on-Sea Borough Council press release that caught my eye, this was one pertaining to changes to electoral registration.

Now I know that it is the press department’s job to eulogise every awful diktat from central Government, but this one really took the biscuit.

They write:

Southend-on-Sea Borough Council Electoral Registration Team will write to every household in the Borough explaining that a new, more secure, system of Individual Electoral Registration is being introduced to replace the old Victorian system where the “head of household” registered everyone living in a property. Now, each individual will be responsible for registering themselves.

This seemingly innocuous statement covers a multitude of sins. Firstly, the ‘more secure’ bit is decidedly arguable. Individual electoral registration is being brought in to stop phantom voters being registered, which is definitely not an issue in Milton ward. Quite how individual registration will stop anyone registering phantom voters is not explained, because all you will get is multiple forms instead of just the one per household. I want voter fraud tackled, but not if this means millions suddenly disappear from electoral registers, which is what is predicted.

What is virtually certain is that this change will damage our democracy. It will do this because under-registration, already endemic in many town and city centres, is likely to rise. Less people registering to vote is not a good thing. I already hand out many voter registration forms as it is because under-registration is already a big issue in parts of the ward I represent.

What really got me about the announcement was their description of the old registration system as ‘Victorian’. OK, in of itself that may have some accuracy, but compared to how other parts of our democracy work it is positively modern.

You cannot vote for the Head of State or for anyone in the House of Lords. We have a voting system that is positively Queen Anne in the way it works, and the way we vote and how it is counted (polling stations, ballot papers, and pencils) is hardly utilising cutting edge technology.

I do not trust the Conservatives when they start tinkering with the way our democracy operates. They have a track record of impeding any progressive change and only seem interested in manipulating the system to their benefit. Under-registration is largely seen in urban areas – and these are often Labour areas.

New funding to boost voter registration

A million pounds still sounds a lot of money to me. Just over four million is a big deal in my books. So, it may seem odd that on hearing that £4.2 million is to be set aside as Funding for new ways to encourage voter registration was a tad disappointed.

£4.2 million divided amongst the 650 constituencies equates to £6462 per constituency. Considering the size of the problem we currently have with under-registration this will not go far at all. Something like three and a half million missing voters are estimated at the moment. Factor in the expectations for Individual Electoral Registration and the doubling of that number is not far-fetched.

I hope I am wrong, but I do see examples of people not being registered very frequently. I have sent out many voter registration forms (and without bias – I do not find out whether the unregistered have Labour tendencies first) and there are clearly discernible patterns. Poverty, ignorance, being transient, and being an incomer to the country form the vast majority of reasons why people are not registered. Disengagement does not feature very often, and so my experience does not suggest that only those that can be bothered to vote do so.

People live busy lives, and despite the bad press that postal voting sometimes attracts, for significant numbers of people this is vital if the voices are to be heard. I have had a postal vote for many years (too many to accurately state, but it must be over two decades). I needed this in the past because I frequently worked away from home. Nowadays I have it for convenience.

The legitimacy of our democracy is challenged by low registration and low turnout. Our mandates, as politicians, appear to be shrinking with the passing of the years. This is not healthy, and whilst I applaud efforts to address registration, I think solutions have to be alive to modern society. In the twenty-first century world of new media we should consider modernising our democracy.

Votes per MP, a disparity and an argument still true

One of the first arguments I heard in favour of electoral reform was how the number of votes required to achieve an MP was badly loaded in favour of Labour and the Conservatives. All these many years later it is still a compelling argument – although not the only one in support of change. In those days, some forty years ago, I was not a member of a party, nor especially a supporter of any of them. In those days I was left of Labour, and had I been able to vote I would have opted for Labour only if nothing further to the left was available. Nowadays I am tribal Labour, and yet still want change. In the end it comes down to fairness.

I am aware that statistics can be manipulated to mean all sorts of things. But raw data is an absolute, it is the unvarnished truth. The following two tables, a supplement if you like to my Vote harvesters post, show two extremes. The first shows the ten highest examples of votes required to win a seat in Parliament, the second show the ten lowest.

Year Party Votes seats votes per seat
Feb 1974 Liberal 6059519 6 1009920
Oct 1974 Liberal 5346704 13 411285
1979 Liberal 4313804 11 392164
1970 Liberal 2117035 6 352839
1964 Liberal 3099283 9 344365
1983 SDP-Liberal Alliance 7780949 23 338302
1987 SDP-Liberal Alliance 7341651 22 333711
1992 Liberal Democrat 5999606 20 299980
1950 Liberal 2621487 9 291276
1959 Liberal 1640760 6 273460

Liberal supporters in February 1974 had to see over a million of them turn out before their party won a seat. Quite extraordinary. All ten are Liberal incarnations, and for comparison the highest figure for the Tories was in 1997 when each of their MPs required 58188 votes nationally. For Labour 1959 saw 47350 votes per seat.

Year Party Votes seats votes per seat
2001 Labour 10724953 413 25968
2005 Labour 9552436 355 26908
1945 Labour 11967746 393 30452
1997 Labour 13518167 418 32340
1983 Conservative 13012316 397 32777
2010 Labour 8606517 258 33359
2010 Conservative 10703654 306 34979
Oct 1974 Labour 11457079 319 35916
1966 Labour 13096629 364 35980
1987 Conservative 13760935 376 36598

This second table can be interpreted in a number of ways. Most obviously it looks like Labour gains most from the current voting system. It also shows that Labour voters are the most efficient, turning in greatest numbers in places where victory is possible, and not bothering where their chances are low.

It is not an exclusive Labour preserve though, and nowhere are either Labour or Tory numbers worse than the Liberal Democrats. (In 2001 the Liberal Democrats had 92583 votes per seat, still more than three as many as the Labour needed in the same election.)

No electoral system will produce absolute equality when it comes to votes and the numbers of MPs they produce. However, it is clear that there is something dreadfully wrong, and it is being exacerbated by the increasingly pluralistic nature of modern British politics.

Unversal suffrage – almost there!

Yesterday was the centenary of my father’s birth. No telegram for Cyril though, he passed away in 1983. However, his sixty-nine years witnessed a great many changes, including universal suffrage. Or did it?

I ask because not everyone can vote and therefore we do not have true universal suffrage. There are exceptions, for good reason, but I think we need to look at these exceptions because I believe they need amending.

Let’s start with the exceptions I would keep.

Foreign nationals (apart from citizens of the Irish Republic and Commonwealth countries resident in Britain) cannot vote, and I think this broadly correct. However, if we were to rigorously adopt the principle of no taxation without representation then there is a valid argument for giving the vote to those foreigners who work here. After all, what is the real difference between an Australian and an Austrian? The Austrian can vote in our local and European elections, can work and pay his taxes, yet has no say in how those taxes are spent. It is certainly an avenue worth looking at.

People convicted within the previous five years of illegal election practices cannot vote. Seems fair enough, an electoral equivalent of a driving ban.

And so to those categories I would change.

Young people under eighteen years old cannot vote at present. I support votes at sixteen, and since sixteen year olds can marry, work, join the army, etc, then I think they should have a say in how the country is run.

I would give the vote to members of the House of Lords. This second chamber is in desperate need of reform (acknowledged by all the main parties) and since members of the primary chamber can vote I see no reason to disallow Lords, Bishops and Royalty – and whoever ultimately replaces them.

Perhaps my most contentious change would be to enable prisoners to vote. Actually, it really ought to be described as changing the ban from automatic to becoming part of sentencing policy. Aside from the potential loophole which could come with a postal vote, since General Election results can be in force for five years it does seem harsh to prevent someone who may only have a day or week left of their sentence from voting. I wonder why someone given a short-term for a lesser crime should be treated the same as a long-term prisoner when it comes to voting, and it ought to be a part of the rehabilitation process. Allowing prisoners to vote also acts to prevent a police state, where people are locked up to curtail their democratic expression.


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