Harriet Harman

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

Britain’s Democracy Deserts – a problem of inequality

Speech to the Association of Electoral Administrators

Thursday 8 September 2005



Selborne House

54 Victoria Street

London SW1E 6QW





I’m delighted to be able to be here at your conference.  This is my first meeting with you since I became deputy to Lord Falconer – Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs.


I want to take this opportunity today to

·        Emphasise the importance of your work

·        Identify the problems which we face in elections

·        Remind you of some of the action which is underway and

·        Raise with you issues where we believe further work is needed


It is hard to overstate the importance of you work.  I know that we all know this but I think it worth spelling out as it should never be taken for granted.


What you do underpins the core of our democracy.

Three democratic essentials


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.


There are problems to a greater or lesser extent with each of these three “legs of the stool”.  And it is the task of us in Government, the Department for Constitutional Affairs together with other government departments, working with you, with Local Government, with Parliament, with the political parties and with pressure groups, the voluntary sector and the Electoral Commission, together identifying the trends, facing up to the problems and trying to sort them out.

Non-partisan approach


And whilst the political parties have a vital role in our democracy, we have to approach change in electoral administration and systems on a non-party basis.  So I work as closely with parliamentarians from the other parties as I do with those from the government’s back-benches.


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

    * For the last 4 years I’ve been solicitor general which required me – in dealing with prosecutions to act independently of government, in the public interest as a law officer and

    * There’s no other way to do this job.  You simply can’t make progress in addressing electoral issues from a party-political basis.


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 you – as electoral administrators, you 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.

Everyone must have the right to vote


We need an electoral registration system which makes a reality of our commitment to universal suffrage.  For everyone to have the right to vote, everyone needs to be on the electoral register. Our system must work in such a way that everyone in all constituencies has the right to vote.


Some areas have very stable communities, others have high mobility.  Some have populations of wealthy home owners, and some of mostly council tenants.  Some areas are virtually all white and others have high percentages of new immigrants.


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


Older, white, home-owners are likely to be registered to vote; many young people, black and Asian people and in private rented accommodation - are not.

A recent DCA Select Committee report showed the following statistics and a report published by the Electoral Commission on Tuesday confirmed the picture:
Young People

Only 2% of people over 50 years old are not on the register.  Yet for people aged between 20–24 this figure is 20%.  (Under-registration of 18 -19 year olds is less acute than for the 20–24s.  12% of 18–19 yr olds are not on the register – revealing that filling in the household electoral registration form is yet another thing that relies on mum.)

Metropolitan population

Only 6% of people living in non-metropolitan areas are not on the register.  For inner Londoners this figure stands at 20%.

Rented unfurnished

Only 2% of owner occupiers are not on the electoral register.  Yet of those living in unfurnished, rented accommodation – which includes council housing – this figure is a massive 38%.

New Commonwealth

And 36% of new Commonwealth citizens who are entitled to vote are not on the register.


And we must also do something about the servicemen and women who find they cannot vote  (either because they are not on the register or because they don’t get their postal vote in time to return it).  They go out to fight for their country.  The least we can do is ensure that they are enfranchised and able to cast their vote and for that reason my Department and the Ministry of Defence will be taking action to ensure that they get on the register and get their vote.


Under-registration is a problem, not only for those who want to vote, and find they cannot.  But also because 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 inaccurate 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.

To illustrate this I’ve done a very rough calculation of under-registration in my constituency compared to that of Oliver Heald, the conservative constitutional affairs spokesperson.  Oliver’s is mostly white, owner occupiers and relatively well-off.  Using the DCA select committee material, I estimate that some 4-5% – about 3,500 of his constituents – may not be registered.  And that is a problem.  But my constituency is poorer, has high levels of rented accommodation, and is home to many black people of African origin and young people.  Across my constituency as a whole, about 20% of people are not registered, rising, in some pockets to nearer 30%.  That means that as many as 15,000 people are not on the register when they should be.


The new Electoral Commission report estimates that there are over three and a half million people entitled to vote but who are not registered.  But the problem is not just under-registration but the inequality of under-registration.


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


There is much work to do here.  For all of us


We made it clear straight after the general election that we would be bringing in legislation to reform and improve the administration of elections in this country.  We said then that the legislation would strike the right balance between access and security, and we set out then what its broad provisions on security were likely to be.


I can go further today.  I can announce today that in the forthcoming bill, we will legislate to improve registration in Britain.  Registration and the electoral register is vital to our democracy.  Our job in government must be to maintain, sustain and increase the level of  registration to ensure the improving health of our democracy.


I can't today go into the detail of what we will be proposing.  But there will be new steps to improve registration and the electoral register.  That has to be good for Government.  Good for politics. But above all good for the people.


I believe that our proposed measures will make some progress in addressing the problems of under-registration, but they will not, of themselves, solve the entire problem and we will be taking further steps.


People want to vote


However, our democracy depends not just on people being registered and having the right to vote, but also on them wanting to vote – “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.


The problem of low registration is compounded by low voter turnout at elections in the same areas where registration is lowest.  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.


So 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. (These figures do not include postal votes, but the overall picture is clear.)


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 must not arrive 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.


But we do have a problem which requires work not just on registration but also on democratic participation – in ensuring people want to vote.


This is a major problem which requires work on many levels.


No-one fiddling the vote


It goes without saying that it is of vital importance that the outcome of any election is regarded by all as legitimate and that it is accepted as fair – and, alongside registration and turnout,  the integrity of the vote forms the third leg of the electoral stool.


The reality is that we have a system based on trust.  People trust that the votes are counted fairly.  That the system is honest and the MPs in the House of Commons – whether you like them or not, and the government – whatever you think about the electoral system – is elected on the basis of the number of people who have actually voted.


And the system has always, hitherto, trusted the people who vote.  That they are who they say they are and then go in and vote.


To rent a DVD at Blockbusters you need proof of identity.  But to vote, you only have to go in and tell the poll clerks sitting behind the desk your address.  They will then say “Mrs Smith?” and when you say “yes” your ballot paper is torn off and given to you and you are waved into the polling booth.


That lack of formality and belief in the honesty of the British public is one of the most valuable things about our system.  But it is struck a severe blow every time a very small number of people instead of going door to door, talking to people and giving out leaflets, winning votes by winning support, seek instead to win power by fraud.


What they do is small scale – a ward here a ward there.  Nothing that will even change the balance of power in a single council.  Yet we cannot reassure ourselves on that basis.  It might result in the wrong person being elected.  And that matters however big or small the role for which they are standing for election.  And the impact of it is immense and hard to overstate.  Because what it does is give people the sense that perhaps they cannot trust the votes of their fellow citizens and it is but a short step from there to believing that they cannot trust the result of the election.


I don’t think that anyone seriously believes that any current member of he House of Commons is there because of fraud.  But nonetheless we must act to ensure that it stays that way.  And we intend to do so.  In particular, we intend to tighten up the system for postal voting.  Postal voting is popular and convenient.  We don’t want to deny people the choice.  But we will make the system safer – put more checks in – so that we do not sacrifice confidence in the result for the sake of convenience and choice.


We have drawn on the proposals of the Electoral Commission, and have consulted widely on our proposals, and we will be introducing a series of security measures which will be implemented in time for the May 2006 elections. John Sills will be going into more detail about security in postal voting this afternoon.


And beyond Electoral Administration…


So, it is clear that we have a major work programme ahead of us.  But beyond the work of the DCA, you – the electoral administrators and returning officers, there is much more that needs doing both in and beyond Government – particularly on the question of encouraging people to want to vote.


We have to ensure that between elections we give people a bigger say in decisions that will effect them.

That is important in local government – and the Home Office is leading the “Together We Can” initiative.  And notably, the Department of Health is leading a major consultation programme which it will use as the future basis for shaping health care.


We need to ensure children know about our democracy and get into the habit of voting.

·        DFES has introduced citizenship education in schools – as an MP I do citizenship classes in local secondary schools.

·        We will be legislating to let parents take children into polling booth so they can see their parents doing it.


Members of Parliament need to ensure 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 be busy 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..


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 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 keep the voting system under review.

W have already done a great deal of innovation 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 at an early stage, and will look at existing evidence of the operation of these voting systems.  Any decisions on the next steps for the review will need to be taken in the light of emerging 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.


We need to make 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.

And it is important also to acknowledge the popularity of postal voting on demand.


We need to draw on all the ideas that are being put into the debate – by organisations such as DEMOS and initiatives such as The Power Commission being led by Helena Kennedy.

Working together to make progress


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


My department wants to draw on your experience as those who work in the field.  And we must also must listen to, consult and involve the public.


I look forward to working with you as we take this forward.

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