Harriet Harman

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

London’s Democratic Divide: Ensuring black people get the right

Speech to Operation Black Vote

Wednesday 14 September 2005



Selborne House

54 Victoria Street

London SW1E 6QW



I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to you.  I want today to

    * Pay tribute to the important work of OBV
    * Raise the issue of the problem of the democratic divide in Britain between the rich and the poor.  And in particular the lack of inclusion in our democracy of so many of the black and minority ethnic community


Operation Black Vote

    * Your work is in a vital area of concern
    * Yours is solid and inclusive work – and cross-party.  That is essential but not easy.


Whilst the political parties have a vital role in our democracy, we have to approach these issues 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 I believe that there’s no other way to do this job.


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. And the reality is that we have a democratic divide in Britain:

    * Most white, wealthy, older, home-owners living in non-metropolitan areas can and do vote;
    * Many black, council tenants and younger people either cannot because they’re not registered – or do not.

Three democratic essentials


Democracy’s central claim is that it is the politics of equality.

·         Everyone has the right to vote,

·         Everyone votes in elections,

·         And it is the vote which makes everyone equal – whether rich or poor, black or white, every vote has same weight.  That is the theory and obviously right.  But the practice does not match the theory. Too many people are not registered to vote, and too many people who are registered nevertheless opt not to vote.

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.


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

A Department for Constitutional Affairs Parliamentary Select Committee report, in March of this year, showed the grim statistics and a report published by the Electoral Commission last week confirmed the picture:
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.

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%.  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.  We cannot sit back and let that happen.  It is not good enough to win the election. The electoral process itself has got to command legitimacy.


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 reviews constituencies it is 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 danger is that that inaccurate data leads to those areas with the lowest levels of registration being under-represented. So 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 of Camberwell and Peckham compared to that of the conservative constitutional affairs spokesperson, Oliver Heald’s constituency of North East Hertfordshire.  Oliver’s is mostly white, owner occupiers and relatively well-off.  Using the Department for Constitutional Affairs 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 Electoral Commission’s report estimates that there are over three and a half million people across England and Wales entitled to vote but who are not registered.  But the problem is not just under-registration but the inequality of under-registration.


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.  As well as addressing issues around security, we will legislate to improve the electoral registers in Britain.  The completeness of the electoral register is vital to our democracy and our job in government must be to do what we can to increase the level of registration to ensure the improving health of our democracy.


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 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 – with accordingly high levels of registration – in other areas turnout is alarmingly low – with matching low levels of registration.


So, for example, in the 2005 General Election in the West Dorset constituency, (where registration levels are high) 90% of registered electors voted in some polling stations. Whereas at some polling stations in my constituency of Camberwell and Peckham (where registration is low) fewer than 39% of voters turned out.


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 and black and minority ethnic communities is a major concern for this government which is determined to tackle inequality, and social exclusion.


We cannot simply take the view that – “it’s their choice, if they want to vote they can, if they don’t, we are not bothered.”  Because our democracy depends for its legitimacy on

    * Everyone having the right to vote – that is not the case where they are not included on the electoral register, and
    * Most people wanting to and turning out to vote – but there are some areas where fewer and fewer are voting.  


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, only 28% of Hispanics voted


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


This requires work on many levels – on registration and on the question of encouraging people to want to vote.


    * The Electoral Administration Bill is the first step for improving the register – but more will be needed


    * We Must involve people between elections – giving them 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.


    * MPs must ensure that people know who they are and what they are doing;


    * We need to ensure children know about our democracy and get into the habit of voting. Citizenship education in schools is important in this and we will also be legislating to let parents take children into polling booth so they can see their parents doing it. Amongst youth disaffection and disengagement from democracy go hand in hand. And that is not just a problem of their not getting their right to vote – it weakens democracy as a whole as it cannot claim to represent a growing swathe of the people who do not participate in it.


    * Need to work in partnership – with community organisations as well as central and local government;


    * Parliament needs to be less archaic and needs to continue to modernise; and


    * Mainstream political parties need to do more – both in terms of their membership and their candidates.


    * People will never believe that the parliamentary system represents them if, in an ethnically diverse society there are so few non-white MPs and in a society where women regard themselves as equal citizens parliament is overwhelmingly male.  When I was first elected in 1982, Parliament was 97% male and there were no black or minority ethnic MPs. We have made progress on both these fronts – 128 women and 15 minority ethnic MPs – and these non-white and women 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.



It is a particular irony that it is in London, in the capital city of our great democracy, that we have the lowest registration of any region. As things stand at present when the elections take place in May next year for London’s local government, one in five Londoners will not have the right to vote.


Yet in the South East Region outside London only 6% do not have the right to vote.


We must work together to ensure London is enfranchised.  We need a big campaign, all working together, to ensure that Londoners can and do vote for those whose task it will be to represent them and who will take decisions that will affect their lives.


This will mean a particular focus on black and minority ethnic communities and also on young people.


I know that we will have the support of London local government, because the electoral administrators of London have, as public authorities, the duty to promote equality and  eliminate race discrimination under the Race Relations Act.


We must have national democratic renewal which ensures the equal and high participation of all citizens. Democracy’s central claim is that all are equal – all have the same rights. We must make this a reality.

The Labour Party will place cookies on your computer to help us make this website better.

Please read this to review the updates about which cookies we use and what information we collect on our site.

To find out more about these cookies, see our privacy notice. Use of this site confirms your acceptance of these cookies.