Justice Minister Michael Willis has hailed the switch to individual registration as "radical" and "an unprecedented move". To tackle electoral registration fraud, including at the initial stage and on polling day, the step-change away from blanket forms for one house is a welcome development in attitudes by central Government.
Mr Michael Willis is now.......Lord Willis, and his place in the Justice Ministry is no longer occupied by a person from his Labour Party. The profound shift in electoral registration came before the most recent general election and was a direct consequence of decreasing confidence in Britain's credibility as a place for free and fair elections. Labour had been stung by an electoral judge condemning the ease with which fraud could be conducted as something which would "shame a banana republic"
Back in 2009, when Mr Willis was flying the flag for this policy as a Minister in a Labour government, the rash of condemnation appears to have been muted. Not so now, as the Coalition's desired move towards the same policy has whipped up the kind of furious anger reserved for filling in comments sections at the bottom of newspaper on-line content. At the core of the opposition argument is a flawed premise - "Ah, it will deny the poor a vote!" - and a disingenuous one at that. "Elections should be based on population not electorate" is another auto-response, an attempt to suggest that all future elections should involve people who are not eligible to vote. Population figures were not used for the boundary review instigated under Labour, and nobody with much of a mind about them is suggesting that should happen again.
Labour helped bring individual registration to the United Kingdom during their time in power by way of Northern Ireland. Known for having...colourful and not always, shall we say, expected attitudes towards putting names on the electoral register, the Norn Iron experience has seen a fall in numbers. How many people were real in the first place is open to argument, and it's that argument which now needs to be tackled here. As the Birmingham case has shown (and not exclusively), we cannot be confident that the rigorous checks we expect on validity are being made. We certainly cannot be confident that the names on an electoral register are always real.
On the politics forum I visit - Vote-UK - this issue has been roundly discussed. As an adjunct to the main debate, one poster said;
At the 2010 election I witnessed some quite disgraceful behaviour at several polling stations in inner city Birmingham. There was clear intimidation and bribery of electors and in several cases the police stood by and watched. If they were willing to turn a blind eye to what I witnessed I have no difficulty believing that they would ignore other cases of electoral fraud.
Another poster added:
Individual registration is obviously superior and it will also hopefully help to keep people on the register who move from place to place regularly. My only concern is that complaints about it removing people from the register are being viewed solely through a partisan prism. I think we should all be able to accept that those legitimate voters leaving the register are more likely to be Labour supporters, but still agree that we ought to be making an especial effort to try to keep the register as full as possible.
Whilst a much less enthusiastic tone was set by the member who wrote:
The real issue here - which I'm surprised hasn't been mentioned in this thread - is not (thread title notwithstanding) moving to individual registration (for which there may be some good arguments, as already mentioned) but effectively making registration voluntary......
As the story says, this is a deliberate calculated decision to lessen involvement in the democratic process - something which I regard as fundamentally immoral
This last post has been the prevailing tone of the opposition. It is not one I agree with - and deep down, I suspect many opponents realise that too. From my own experience in Preston, there is a clear case of "head of the household" registration in some communities, something which cannot be tackled if election officers lack the safety net which individual registration provides. Broader arguments against the change talk about working class, or black and ethnic minority or non-English speaking people having the ladder of democracy somehow whipped away from them. This is far removed from either reality or intention; it is the responsibility of everyone involved in "politics" generally, be it national or hyper-local, to ensure the people we want to represent have the ability and opportunity to case a vote. "This is excluding the poorest in society" is not a valid claim if either you do nothing to ensure that the people who worry about have registered.
Another thread in the argument involves the moves to make parliamentary boundaries fairer, and reviews of constituencies more frequent. From around 15-year cycles to 5, the first of which is now underway. "This is just gerrymandering!" cry opponents, showing another blatant misunderstanding which borders on the medically unstable. Elections have always asked those who are able to vote to do so - it makes no sense to set up straw man arguments about immigrants or under-18s. If opponents wish to encourage individuals to register for elections who are, for example, about to turn 16 and for whom "voting" and "politics" seem like bizarre sexual fetishes, they could do well to help the Youth Citizenship Commission in their aim to roll out registration in schools and colleges.
If we are to have an electoral system people can believe in, then those seats we create for elections must be robust reflections of the voters within the boundaries who are able to vote; everyone who has the right to vote, with the ability to do so, on a register we can trust. There is too much doubt on the issue today, and partisan bleating about "fixing the system" pithily denies an awkward truth about the system as it currently stands today.
It is not evil for any Government to consider it vital that those who are willing to participate in elections should be encouraged to do so themselves. Labour recognised this in 2009, and the Coalition are now seeing it through.