Win or lose, Corbyn’s greatest gift to Labour could be voter registrationBy Chris Game on 11 September 2015
Tony Blair doesn’t think much of his party’s most likely next leader. “Your heart is with Jeremy Corbyn? Then get a transplant!” was but the first of several personally offensive, probably counter-productive, and disingenuous interventions during the summer’s protracted leadership campaign.
Disingenuous because rather more honest punchlines might have been: “Want to win elections? Get yourself a massive systemic bias!”, or even “Your heart is with Jeremy Corbyn? Great, he’s a better Labour recruiter than even I was!”
First, the bias. The UK’s single-member constituency plurality electoral system is about as proportionally unrepresentative as is feasible in a polity calling itself a democracy. Most notoriously, it discriminates viciously against minor parties with modest but nationwide support. So, in May’s election, the 5 million votes for UKIP and the Greens earned them one MP each, while the Scottish Nationalists’ 1.5 million got them 56.
Governments, though, are mainly decided by the disproportionality or bias between the two major parties, which can be huge, but fluctuates from election to election. Its commonest measurement is the difference between the numbers of MPs each party would have won with an identical share of the vote. So if, in May, the Conservatives (36.9%) and Labour (30.4%) had split the difference and each taken 33.6% of the vote, the Conservatives would have won 301 seats – way short of a 326 Commons majority or their actual 331 – and Labour 254, instead of 232. This year, therefore, there was a 47-seat net bias to the Conservatives.
Now take Blair’s three victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005, with overall majorities of 178, 166 and 65 respectively – impressive certainly, but greatly inflated and in 2005 created by systemic pro-Labour biases of 82, 141, and 111. Blair’s leadership and New Labour policies undoubtedly underpinned those historic Labour wins, but it is disingenuous and misleading to ignore the electoral system’s contribution and, after two decades, the complete reversal today of that pro-Labour bias.
Causes of the reversal are several. They include the Conservative-threatening Liberal Democrats’ replacement as main third party by the more Labour-threatening Greens and UKIP; Labour’s loss of many of its smaller-than-average Scottish and inner city seats; and the Conservatives’ increasingly effective target seat strategy. The overall effect, though, is that any leader – even some Draculine fusion of Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Blair himself – would be pushed, starting from here, to win the barest Labour plurality in the May 2020 General Election, let alone majority government.
And that’s without the combined impact of the forthcoming Parliamentary Boundary Review and the ongoing transition from the UK’s traditional household-based registration system to Individual Electoral Registration (IER). The boundary review, and the accompanying reduction in MPs from 650 to 600, would be expected to boost Conservative prospects in any case. IER shouldn’t, but from the outset Conservative ministers have seemed intent on manipulating it to additional partisan advantage, rather than democratic benefit.
The politically crucial link between the two projects is that the IER registers will provide the exclusive base for the boundary review. Their completeness or otherwise will determine the electoral sizes and political balance of the 600 new constituencies.
As most of the democratic world can testify, IER took a long time reaching the UK, and even then, in 2002, it was adopted only in Northern Ireland. It is finally being extended to Great Britain through the Coalition’s 2013 Electoral Registration and Administration (ERA) Act. Some of the draft Bill’s proposals were later modified, but collectively they clearly suggest a Conservative strategy of prioritising the new IER registers’ accuracy – no false entries – over their completeness – every eligible voter being correctly registered at their current address.
The party’s reasoning would be that the less complete the new registers, the greater will be the excluded proportions of predominantly non-Conservative-voting groups – the young and most geographically mobile, social class DE, social housing renters, some BME and other hard-to-reach groups. The fewer, consequently, will be the Labour-winnable constituencies following the boundary review, and the fewer the potential Labour supporters registered in 2020.
Three tactics in particular illustrate the strategy. First was the ERA Bill’s proposal to change voter registration from the statutory requirement or civic duty it is widely taken to be into a “personal choice”. Anyone could opt out simply by doing nothing. This shocked even MPs, who envisaged registration rates plummeting to around this year’s 65 per cent turnout rate, and Ministers were eventually persuaded to drop the opt-out option.
Secondly, the Government chose to save £74 million by scrapping the autumn 2014 full annual door-to-door household canvass – the traditional basis of household registration that the Electoral Commission wanted as the launch-pad for IER. Instead, IER forms were mailed to those on the February/March 2014 registers – on which the Commission estimated (p.10) that around 7.5 million electors could be incorrectly registered.
Thirdly, again rejecting Electoral Commission advice, the Government tabled a proposal in July that, to avoid jeopardising the accuracy of the registers for the Parliamentary Boundary Review, the IER transition period should end in December 2015, 12 months earlier than specified in the ERA Act.
Unfortunately, the registers’ completeness would be jeopardised by also advancing by 12 months the removal of an unknowable number – by the Commission’s reckoning, potentially 1.9 million – of ‘carried forward’ household-registered electors not re-registered individually.
Which brings us to Jeremy Corbyn, largely responsible in three months for increasing Labour’s membership by more than Blair managed in three heyday years, quite apart from his 100,000+ Corbynite ‘registered supporters’. Irrespective of Saturday’s result, if he and his team can galvanise their comrades into a ten-week voter, rather than party, registration drive, Labour might not win in 2020 but could easily gain or save itself some seats.
A similar version of this piece was published on The Conversation on 11 September 2015.
Chris Game is Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies.
Image: Ciaran Norris CC BY-NC