How not to inspire the electorate (a lesson from the Labour backbench)

No votes, no rights. So says Siobhain McDonagh. Katie Collins/PA

A bill passed its first reading in the House of Commons this week which, if it became law, would prove far more punitive in restricting access to social benefits than anything yet suggested by Iain Duncan Smith or George Osborne.

Surprising, then, that the Bill in question was introduced by a backbench Labour MP and its main objective is not to reduce the deficit or “make work pay”, but to tackle the problem of unregistered voters.

A ‘something-for-something society’

Introduced by Siobhain McDonagh MP, the proposed legislation is intended to establish “a requirement that electoral registration be a condition of access to public services”. Noting the millions of eligible electors absent from the electoral registers,McDonagh told the Commons:

In future, if someone wants housing benefits, a state pension, a national insurance number or even a driving licence, they will have to be on the electoral register.

Indeed, under McDonagh’s Bill, UK citizens would be unable to receive anything from the state unless they first registered to vote. Her rationale is rooted in the notion of a social contract.

“The Bill is about living in a something-for-something society — public services in return for civic duty”, she explained to a sparsely populated chamber.

Too much to ask?

While McDonagh argued none of this was “too much to ask” of citizens, public response via social media suggested otherwise. Setting the costs of not registering to vote sky-high might well result in near-universal registration levels. But the spectre of gratuitously unjust anomalies is clearly raised.

Imagine someone of pensionable age who has paid 45 years of national insurance contributions having their state pension automatically suspended because they’ve disappeared from the electoral roll. Or a working single mother having her housing benefit removed because, while juggling dozens of commitments, she failed to return her electoral registration form.

Doomed to fail

You may be relieved to learn that McDonagh’s bill doesn’t have a hope of becoming law. Only a small minority of Private Members Bills ever make it onto the statute books. To do so, they normally require government backing to make it through the parliamentary process.

And there’s an added hurdle. Legislation making major reforms to electoral registration received Royal Assent less than six months ago. The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 accelerates the introduction of individual elector registration, under which electors must provide a national insurance number when registering to vote.

Since McDonagh’s Bill proposes to do things the other way around, great swathes of the 2013 Act (and Labour’s Political Parties and Elections Act 2009) would almost certainly have to be repealed to render McDonagh’s proposals viable. It’s not going to happen.

Is there even a problem?

McDonagh’s bill is certainly a sledgehammer, but the problem she is trying to crack is more than a nut. There are around 6.5 million people without accurate entries on the electoral registers, roughly 16% of those eligible to vote. This means under-registration has doubled since the early 1990s (by which time Poll Tax evasion had already taken up to one million additional names off the registers).

And some groups in society are far more likely to be disenfranchised than others. Around 45% of 18-24 year olds are not registered to vote at their current address, compared to just 6% of eligible electors aged 65 and over. Among those who live in private rented accommodation, just 44% are not registered, against 13% who occupy homes being bought on a mortgage.

The influence of such socio-demographic factors on registration rates also renders under-registration a far bigger problem in disadvantaged inner-urban areas than in more affluent suburban and rural areas. These geographic variations in turn affect the number of parliamentary seats an area qualifies for. So a metropolitan area with high levels of under-registration risks becoming under-represented in parliament.

Finally, there is every likelihood that individual registration will both depress registration levels further and widen the contrasts in registration levels between social groups and geographical areas.

The power of the vote

What’s the solution? The government has launched a campaign to get people to register to vote, reminding us all that “previous generations have campaigned, fought and died to preserve and improve our democracy”. While historically correct, there’s little evidence that this sort of message does anything other than preach to the converted.

Instead, research suggests the more prosaic, but costly, exercise of registration teams visiting households where electors have not registered would produce better results, especially if backed by a reminder of the existing legal requirement to register.

The best incentive of all would come from a political process which engages citizens more effectively and genuinely persuades them of the power of the vote. Is that too much to ask?