Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

A New Deal for Democracy

Speech to the Hansard Society – Harriet Harman
16 January 2006



Introduction – The importance of democracy


A healthy democracy is vital in securing individual rights, equality, social cohesion and social inclusion.


It  is the key to any Government’s legitimacy, on which rests its ability to deliver on its programmes – in our case, for a strong economy and improved public services.


A healthy democracy is one that has the active engagement of its citizens.  Both at elections at national and local level, and between elections, at national and local level.


These are things that almost everyone will agree on.  In the past, this has been regarded as a matter for political parties and not a matter for government.


But it is the role of Government to be concerned about the condition of our democracy. And it is specifically, the role of the Department for Constitutional Affairs – the department for “justice, rights and democracy.”


And it a particular concern to this government  - which aims for equality and social inclusion - that our democracy is becoming more unequal.


1.      What democracy should look like


Our democracy depends for its legitimacy on three things:


    * Everyone who is eligible to vote having the right to vote;
    * People who are entitled to vote actually wanting to vote];  and
    * No-one fiddling the vote.


And there are problems to a greater or lesser extent with each of these three “legs of the stool”.


It is the task of us in Government, the Department for Constitutional Affairs together with other government departments, working with Local Government, with Parliament, with the political parties and with pressure groups, the voluntary sector and the Electoral Commission, to identify the trends and face up to the problems affecting our democracy and try to sort them out.


Democracy must live up to its principles that

    * It is the way people bring about change peacefully;
    * everyone has a say;
    * everyone has an equal role in democracy.


What democracy actually looks like currently


Inequality in the right to vote


There is big, and growing, inequality in our democracy. There is no equality in the right to vote. The young, the poor, black and other ethnic minority groups are far less likely to be on the electoral register – and therefore able to vote – than older, wealthier, white people.  . This is becoming a serious problem – and, if it continues, not only fundamentally undermines the legitimacy of our democracy but also  will pose a threat to social cohesion and social inclusion.


·         Some 16% of 18–24 year olds are not on the electoral register, compared to just 2% of over 55s.  (Under-registration of 18 -19 year olds is less acute than for the 20–24s – revealing that filling in the household electoral registration form is yet another thing that relies on mum.)

·         Some 37% of black Africans are not registered to vote. This compares with just 6% for white Britains.

·         Some 27% of those renting from private landlords are not on the electoral register compared to only 3-4% of owner-occupiers not on the register,

·         Those living in the 25% most deprived areas are a third more likely not to be registered than those in more affluent areas.

·         Those living in cities are less likely to be on the register than those in rural areas.  18% of inner Londoners are not on the register compared to 6%in non-metropolitan areas.


So our electoral registration system does not, in practice, give to everyone, equally, the right to vote.


We must also do something about the men and women in the armed forces who find, often because they move from place to place, that they cannot vote because they are not on the register.


Under-registration is a problem, not only for those who want to vote, and find they cannot and for social cohesion but also because it skews political representation away from the poorest towards more affluent areas.  The boundaries of parliamentary constituencies are based on the number of people on the electoral register. So each time the Boundary Commission review constituencies they are relying on incomplete data.


Those who have campaigned in elections – as I have over the last 25 years – in inner city areas know what has been happening.  You go along a walkway in a council housing estate.  You have, in your hand the relevant extract of the electoral register.  You go to number 1, to number 2 to number 3 and number 4.  And then you get to a gap on the register till no 11.  The flats are there.  The curtains are in the windows.  People are coming and going.  But those people who live there cannot vote because they are not on the register.


At each General Election, council election, By-election when I have left Peckham for campaigns in leafy marginal suburbs I have been astonished to find that every house is on the register and each person who opens the door matches the name registered at that address.


The stark truth is that the gaps on the register mirror the maps of social exclusion we have such a clear picture of. The Electoral Commission’s recent report “Social Exclusion and Political Engagement” reminds us that “those socially excluded because of economic and social reasons are also excluded politically.”


The problem is not just under-registration but the inequality of under-registration.


But although it is clear that it is in poorer areas where the greater problem lies but it is essential for the health of our democracy as a whole that we ensure that everyone entitled to it has the right to vote and that all parts of the country are equally represented.


Democracy, where there is a differential eligibility to vote on the grounds of income, age and race is not healthy.
Low voter turnout


Our democracy depends not just on people being registered and having the right to vote, but also on them wanting to vote and actually voting – “turnout”.  Our democracy lacks legitimacy if, whatever the formal rules about universal suffrage and the right to vote, people don’t make it a reality by turning out to vote.


There has been a general decline in turnout, which in itself is a significant cause for concern.  But the low turnout rates are particularly striking in many of those areas, which are also characterised by low levels of registration.


What is masked by looking at the average fall in turn-out is that while in some areas turnout remains reassuringly high, in other areas turnout is alarmingly low.


For example, in the 2005 General Election in the Bettiscombe and Marshwood parishes in the West Dorset constituency, (where registration levels are high) 90% of registered electors voted, whereas at the EVA polling district within the Liverpool Riverside constituency (where registration is low) only 30% voted – and this was an increase from the 16% at European Parliamentary elections. And I understand this was only due to particular efforts by the local MP Louise Ellman


And again there is clearly a problem with younger people and the poorest not turning out to vote.


·        Only 37% of 18-24 year olds turned out to vote at the last General Election, compared to a turnout of 75% for the over 65s. Young adults were therefore only half as likely to vote as those aged over 65.


·        There is a widening gap in turnout between the wealthy and the poor, with some 71% of social classes A and B voting at the last General Election, compared with just 54% of social classes D and E.


The compound problem of low registration and low turnout – “democracy deserts.”


The problem, therefore, is that there are, in this country, areas which have low levels of registration, and where the democratic deficit is compounded by the low levels of democratic engagement – turnout.  These are “democracy deserts” – areas where democracy does not feature in the local community, areas where the conventional electoral process simply passes people by.  And the fact that these are the poorer areas is a major concern for this government which is determined to tackle inequality, and social exclusion.


We have arrived at the situation that has emerged in the United States over recent decades where whether you vote or not is increasingly directly and starkly defined by wealth, educational attainment and race.  As Professor Thomas Patterson of Harvard University’s JFK School for Government says: “The decline in participation has been concentrated among Americans of low income.  Although a class bias in turnout has been a persistent feature of U.S.  elections, the gap has widened to a chasm.  The voting rate among those at the bottom of the income ladder is only half that of those at the top.  Working-class Americans now occupy the periphery of a political world in which money and middle-class concerns are ascendant.”


In the 2004 Presidential Elections:


·        Only 36% of those on the lowest incomes voted, compared to 80% of those on the highest incomes.

·        Fewer than 24% of school leavers voted, compared to over 77% of those with advanced degrees.

·        While 66% of white people were reported to have voted, the figures stand at 56% for black people, 30% of Asians and only 28% of Hispanics.

The problem of the next generation


Overlaying the problem of the socio-economic inequality in our democracy, is the concern about the involvement in our democracy of the next generation.

As I’ve set out, today’s young people are less likely to be registered and less likely to  vote than the older generation.


What we do not know is whether today’s young people will get the voting habit as they get older. I suspect not. Those who are older and who vote did not “get the voting habit” as they got older. They’ve always voted. I fear that we have, growing up, a generation who are turning their back on democracy.


There is a deep and worrying irony in that those citizens who in fact have most interaction with and greatest dependence on the state – i.e. those people whom Government’s decisions most directly affect – are exactly the people who are least likely to be registered and least likely to vote.


If, as I have sought to show, they are increasingly excluded and marginalised from of our democracy, this will have two effects. Not only will their sense of exclusion grow, but we will also see our democracy evolve into a political world where the concerns of the middle classes and the affluent are ascendant. This is a trend we clearly need to halt and reverse.


Confidence that no-one is fiddling the vote


Though everyone agrees that electoral fraud is extremely rare, we must be watchful.    Fraud in any area, in any election, national or local, is a problem because it undermines confidence.  And everyone, in every community in any party of the country is entitled to their vote and to know that their vote is counted as they cast it.


If people are to remain confident in the result of elections, we must deal emphatically with fraud whenever and wherever it occurs.


The House of Lords – not democratic at all


In addition to facing up to the problems in elections, we must look at that part of our democracy which is not yet democratic at all – the House of Lords.


People have been talking about reforming the Lords for a hundred years.  We have made real progress.  We have removed all but 92 or the hereditary peers.  But there is more to do.




Political Parties

To have confidence in the electoral system, people need to believe that their vote counts.  But for their vote to be effective, we need a healthy politics, and within that a healthy party politics and the need to be sure that it is their vote that counts, rather than powerful companies or rich men.

Active, thriving and vibrant political parties are vital to the health of our representative democracy and should be seen to be so. Despite the rise in other outlets for political activity, they remain the main way in which public opinion can be focused.  They provide policy platforms and choice. They are the means to deliver those choices, are channels for political discourse and ensure the conduct of effective parliamentary government.


We must re-argue the case for political activity and political parties. We politicians must restrain ourselves from saying, in order to curry favour with a certain audience, "This is not a political point but", as if we will spring free from politics. We all have a responsibility to make the case for politics and political parties. However, parties need infrastructure.


We will, therefore, continue to work with the independent Electoral Commission to explore how best to support the vital democratic role of political parties, while recognising that campaigning activity must always be funded by parties from their own resources


We are already re-examining the way in which money is targeted in the run-up to elections.  In the months before the last General Election – before any election expenses are required to be accounted for – Lord Ashcroft’s company Bearwood Corporate Services Limited poured large sums of money into local Conservative associations in marginal constituencies.  Most of these constituencies had above average swings to the Conservative Party, and in the case of the Hammersmith and Fulham constituency a £42,000  donation undoubtedly contributed to the huge 7.4% swing.


We are seeking to ensure a level playing field in election expenses in the Electoral Administration Bill, currently before the House of Lords. All parties recognise that this is a problem and, through consultation with all sides of the House, I hope to reach a sensible agreement on this, which doesn’t restrict MPs from carrying out their usual activities but does bring an end to this situation which puts so many other candidates at elections at a disadvantage.


What we’re doing


Action to tackle unequal registration: new laws


To help tackle under-registration we have included key measures on the issue in the Electoral Administration Bill which we have brought before Parliament.  This Bill will place a new duty on registration officers to maximise registration and will introduce measures to set national performance standards in registration.


There is a wealth of information held by public bodies about the population which could be used by registration officers to compile registers and we are looking to extend the data that registration officers can access as part of their registration duties.


Action to tackle unequal registration: campaigning
The job of government is not just to pass laws but to take action.  That’s why we have set up the “Get London registered”, a coalition for equality and democracy which aims to find and register London’s estimated 550,000 missing voters in time for the London council elections in May this year.

The highly mobile nature of London’s population contributes to the problem of under registration in the capital.  People who have moved house in the last 6 months are 5 times more likely to be unregistered than those who have lived in the same place for 6 months or more.

The coalition, which the DCA leads, includes the Mayor of London, Ken Livingston, the Greater London Authority, the Commission for Racial Equality, the 33 London Boroughs, the Electoral Commission, voluntary organisations such as Operation Black vote,  and London’s trade unions.


There will be a high profile campaign to get Londoners registered, building on the hard work of the Electoral Registration officers in each London Borough.  As well as door to door registration drives there will be high profile campaigning outside colleges and stations.  Because many of the unregistered are migrant workers, there will be registration campaigning in places such as Canary Wharf at dawn as the cleaners come to work.


Action to increase the participation of young people


To ensure children know about our democracy and get into the habit of voting.

·        My colleagues in DFES and I are working to ensure that all children in all schools get high quality citizenship education.

·        as an MP I do citizenship classes in local secondary schools. This is something that all MPs and all other elected representatives should be expected to and be prepared to do.

·         We are legislating to let parents take children into the polling booth so they can show their children about voting and how to vote.

·        We are legislating to open up the election process itself, so that teachers can take children in citizenship classes in to see the count.

·        We are legislating to lower the age of candidacy from 21 to 18 in line with the change of voting age, opening up the possibility or teenage MPs in the UK for the first time.

·        We have decided to keep the voting age at 18, but will, along with the Electoral Commission, review this in a few years time when citizenship classes will have had a chance to become better established in our schools.


Voter engagement


We are continuing to look at what kind of engagement with citizens works, how best to share knowledge and how to raise awareness about democracy and its importance.  DCA officials will be on the panel evaluating the Department of Health’s deliberative consultation, “Your Health, Your Care, Your Say.”  And we are also leading work on the democracy strand of the “Together we Can” programme, co-ordinated by the Home Office.


Reviewing the effect of our reforms of electoral systems: The Electoral systems review


We have already brought in a number of significant innovations on voting systems. In our first term, we introduced proportional representation voting systems to the Scottish Parliament, and National Assembly for Wales, Mayoral and Greater London Assembly elections.  We are reviewing the experience of these new electoral systems.  Before the General Election an official level review on these systems began.


This review is underway, and is looking at existing evidence of the operation of these voting systems.  Any decisions on any next steps would, if necessary, be taken in the light of any findings.  But we remain committed – as we set out in our manifesto – that there would have to be a referendum before any change to the voting system for Westminster.


Tackling fraud


We have a comprehensive plan for electoral security which includes:

·        new electoral fraud offences for supplying false information at registration and falsely applying for a postal vote – measures in the EA bill;

·        Secondary legislation, to further tighten postal voting procedures shortly;

·        Performance standards to ensure best practice on tackling fruad; and

·        Extra resources for electoral registration officers.


Making the voting system easy and convenient.


Physical access to polling stations is important, particularly for those with mobility problems who want to vote in person.


The use of Braille ballot papers and tactile voting devices is important for the visually impaired.




The electoral process needs to fit with modern lifestyles and allow better access for those who find the voting process difficult. To this end, the Government is exploring options to improve the process of electoral registration and voting process. Any improvements to the system would take into account security considerations; being at least as secure, if not more secure, than arrangements currently in place.


When the Co-ordinated Online Record of Electors (CORE) project is fully implemented voters will be able to access their information online using a code and notify an ERO of any changes via the CORE system.  In addition to this, we will also look at how email and the internet might play a role in increasing access to and participation in voting.


The Government has conducted considerable research into remote electronic voting.  This research is primarily conducted through pilots under S. 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000.  There have been 27 e-voting pilots in 2002 and 2003 and these were all evaluated by The Electoral Commission who reported on each of the pilots as well as publishing a strategic evaluation.


As part of the work being done on electoral modernisation there is ongoing consideration of e-voting technologies used world-wide and their performance in pilots and elections.


We remain committed to the goal of multi-channel elections sometime after 2006.  We have not closed the door on all-postal voting, but have no current plans to roll it out as the default position.  We envisage voter choice including e-voting channels.


The Secretary of State is obliged by law to consider any application from a local authority to pilot innovative voting methods and we will consider them on a case by case basis.




E-counting has been piloted at a number of local elections in recent years, it has also been used at the GLA elections in 2004.


It is expected that e-counting pilots will be run in the May 2006 local elections in a number of authorities.


Lords Reform


We believe that a reformed Upper Chamber must be effective, legitimate and more representative without challenging the primacy of the House of Commons.


Following a review conducted by a committee of both Houses, we will seek agreement on codifying the key conventions of the Lords, and developing alternative forms of scrutiny that  complement rather than replicate those of the Commons; the review should also explore how the Upper Chamber might offer a better route for public engagement in scrutiny and policy-making. We will legislate to place reasonable limits on the time bills spend in the second chamber – no longer than 60 sitting days for most Bills.


As part of the process of modernisation, we will remove the remaining hereditary peers and allow a free vote on the composition of the House.


Greater participation between elections and greater debate


Participation between elections is important in local as well as national government. Since 1997 there has been a flowering of innovative forms of public engagement – for example, the Citizens Council used by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence to advise on ethical dilemmas, the Home Office led “Together We Can” initiative and the Department of Health’s “Your Heath Your Care Your Say” consultation.  With the growing importance of new public policy issues and dilemmas we will continue to explore further forms of public engagement and raise their profile and status in policy-making.


If we are to encourage inclusion and participation, we need a strong element of deliberation and it needs to be from the bottom up.  


We also want to bring Parliament and the people closer together. I will work closely with the Leader of the House, Geoff Hoon on this.  Issues for consideration could include Members of Parliament ensuring that their constituents know what they are doing on their behalf.


Of course they expect us to ask them for their vote and they want us to work for them between elections.  But they need to know more than that – they need to know who we are and what we are actually doing for the area.


·         Members of Parliament could write annual reports for their constituents;

·         Select Committees could hold evidence sessions outside Westminster and around the country, in public assembly; and

·         Members of the public could be granted freepost to write to their elected representatives.


What more we need to do


We need to ensure that Parliament is representative


People will never believe that the parliamentary system represents them if, in an ethnically diverse society there are few non-white MPs and in a society where women regard themselves as equal citizens parliament is overwhelmingly male.  We have made progress on both these fronts.  We legislated to allow for all-women short-lists at Parliamentary elections and women and non-white MPs have strengthened our parliament, made it more representative and widened the political agenda – but we still have further to go.  This is not political correctness – but a democratic imperative.

We need to work together to make progress


It is perfectly clear that government does not have a monopoly of wisdom on this.


We need to draw on all the experience of those who work in the field and the ideas that are being put into the debate – by organisations such as DEMOS, and the Hansard Commission chaired by Lord Puttnam and initiatives such as The Power Commission which is set to report in February. And we must also must listen, consult and involve the public.
We need to adopt a non-partisan approach


Whilst the political parties have a vital role in our democracy, we have to approach change in electoral administration and democratic systems on a non-party basis.


And though I’ve stood for election seven times as a Labour candidate, it is not difficult for me to get into non-party mode in carrying out these responsibilities in my new department because there’s no other way to do this job.  You simply can’t make progress in addressing electoral issues from a party-political basis.


So I work as closely with parliamentarians from the other parties as I do with those from the Government’s back-benches.

However, while there should be no party difference in addressing such issues, it is undeniably the case that the constituencies MPs represent are very diverse. It is the same for  electoral administrators, who work in areas that are very different to each other.  So it is essential that the electoral system works for the entire population and that the principles of our electoral system are applied equally to all our constituencies. One size must fit all.

There is a clear need and plenty of scope for action. Some of this is underway in the Electoral Administration Bill currently before Parliament. The London registration campaign should be just the beginning of concerted, collaborative drives to ensure we have the greatest possible equality of access to the vote. But more needs to be done – with us all working together – to close the democratic divide and bring about a new deal for democracy.

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