A national cover-up: Coalition’s meddling is costing the poor their vote
It's a scandal no-one in power wants you to know about – but the coalition's changes to the way people register to vote mean around one million of Britain's poorest, most deprived voters have disappeared from the electoral register overnight.
Over its four-and-a-half years in power the government has taken a lot away from the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. Now the very early signs emerging about the consequences of the switch to individual electoral registration (IER) are that many of them are effectively having their vote removed.
The initial reports are alarming but scattered, because the complex figures are not released in a way that is conducive to rapid analysis. Over 200 local authorities, each with their own electoral registration officer, were required to publish their updated register on December 1st. It's the first time the register's been updated since the government's controversial reform was finally implemented this summer.
IER's big change is a move away from the old Victorian-era way of registering to vote, when the head of the household would be responsible for all those eligible for the franchise. The new method means everyone has to do it themselves.
This is no problem for most, but it only takes a small percentage to fall through the cracks for this to have terrible consequences. Those moving around lots – who tend to be from poorer backgrounds – are likely to be affected.
Students, too, are vulnerable. Before universities would register their students en masse in a block. Now, though, it's up to the individuals to do so. Unsurprisingly, most are ignoring the letters from the council suggesting that they fill in the paperwork.
Disenfranchising the vulnerable
This week is the first chance to find out exactly how bad the problem is. Early reports suggest the answer is very, very bad indeed.
In Oxford the electoral roll has shrunk by 10.7% in 12 months. In Camden, 8,000 voters have disappeared – and there are 10,000 students who gave 'not responded' to their IER request.
Even in places with stable populations like the Wirral, there are a high number of voters who have been 'carried over' automatically on to the new register. This was the result of a concession ministers agreed to in order to limit the damage for the 2015 general election. It's a one-off provision that stops next year, when fewer people care.
But the most shocking data comes from Liverpool, where a senior source at the council has provided Politics.co.uk with his findings from the still-secret raw data.
In Liverpool Central ward students living in halls have seen their registration levels drop by 90%. Last May there were 926 students registered to vote living at the largest student block in the city, Grand Central in Hibre Street. Now there are 101 registered. "This is typical of other halls," our source notes.
The problem is even more alarming in residential homes and hostels, where the rate of drop-off is truly shocking.
Under the old household registration rules residents were automatically registered. Now elderly people must do it themselves – but around 40% have failed to do so. Old people have always been keen on voting, but the most vulnerable tend to need help.
At Ann Fowler House, a Salvation Army hostel providing accommodation for single homeless women, there were 35 women registered in May. That number has now fallen to zero.
Homeless people have next to nothing in life, but they have the right to vote. Yet if this pattern is repeated across the country the evidence will show the coalition's reforms are damaging the odds of them doing so.
As in the Wirral, these names will probably be 'carried over' – an artificial propping-up of a system that this week's evidence suggests is struggling to bed down. There are important elections taking place across the country in 2016, when the carried-over names will disappear from the register for good.
A crisis they don't want you to know about
Right now, though, it's impossible to come up with an overall figure precisely because the system is structured in a way that looks and feels like an organised cover-up.
No-one responsible for these reforms wants anyone to report on what is happening. The government has been boasting that nearly nine in ten people have been automatically transferred to the new system – distracting from the fact that still leaves many millions for returning officers to find.
— Cabinet Office (@cabinetofficeuk) October 21, 2014
The Association of Electoral Administrators is dismissive about the importance of this week's figures, suggesting it will take many weeks to provide useful data. The Electoral Commission isn't in any hurry to publish its analysis of the numbers. Its detailed research will have to wait until next February. Here's its statement on this week's update:
"The Commission is cautioning against drawing conclusions based simply on the snapshot picture that this month's registers will show. Every ERO faces different challenges and the purpose of the Commission's detailed analysis is to understand what the overall picture is across the country."
It has chosen this moment to publish the details of its general election public information campaign, presumably in a bid to head off any concerns about the register. There have been few: journalists are being discouraged from investigating. Getting to the truth is even harder than reading this sentence, they're told, because there are strict rules about inspecting the register and that it must be done in person and that an appointment is required and that you can't necessarily identify what you're after anyway and that there are other reasons why people might not appear and that waiting several weeks for the raw data will be needed and that the return is very, very complicated. And impossible to wade through.
Still, the early analysis – such as it is – is now underway. The result is that the information needed to expose the true situation will slowly emerge in the coming weeks, rather than being revealed at once.
"The rules are dysfunctional," says political consultant Paul Wheeler. "Electoral returning officers are being asking to do something which no longer can be done. They're trying really hard, but it's frankly beyond them."