Last night Shadow Leader of the House of Commons Angela Eagle addressed the Hansard Society on political engagement in Britain. Given the problems we face her speech makes welcome reading.
Eagle spoke of Britain’s “flatlining democracy” and said that Labour would be undertaking an inquiry to help shape policies on political reform as the party moves towards the next election.
We welcome Labour’s new focus on political disengagement. Now the party needs to show it is prepared to tackle the big issues that are keeping disenchanted voters at home.
Eagle covered a lot of ground, about public holidays for Election Day, citizenship education, and how might make voting easier and more accessible.
She also asked if Britain should consider incentives, like entering voters into a lottery. Back in 2008 we heard similar ideas floated about free doughnuts on polling day. We are clear that the problems facing our democracy will not be solved by palliatives or headline grabbing initiatives.
We were pleased Angela Eagle expressed unease over the quick fix of following Australia down the route of compulsory voting. Compulsion would simply cook the books on plunging turnout figures.
Let’s deal with root causes, not hide political disengagement behind the threat of a fine.
The 16 million of us who stayed away from the polls in 2010 offer a stark warning to all parties. We need new ideas to get people back into the habit of voting. We hope this inquiry is radical and that Labour is brave and bold enough to make the changes our democracy needs.
The Society recently published its own analysis into Britan’s flatlining democracy. Reviving the health of our Democracy, by Jess Garland, is available for download here…
Pete Jefferys, Shelter Policy Team
In the Shelter policy team we spend a lot of time thinking about how to get renting up the political agenda. Four in ten of the people who come to Shelter for housing advice rent privately and the number of renters is increasing rapidly as more and more families find themselves unable to buy a home. There are now more than 9m renters in England – which ought to be enough to get some serious political attention.
One problem we face is that renters are less likely to vote than home owners – so why should politicians care about them?
Private renters are historically less likely to vote than home owners (Source: Ipsos Mori)
Why is this? Evidence suggests that the two main factors are demographics and the lack of stability in the sector. Renters are 11 times more likely to move home each year than those with a mortgage. If you don’t expect to be able to stick around due to short contracts and rent rises you might wonder why bother registering or voting?
Low registration and turnout shouldn’t just be a worry for Shelter: it’s a problem for our democracy. If the growing proportion of renters makes turnout at elections fall, surely those concerned about democratic accountability will demand action to prevent a growing chunk of the electorate falling out of political representation.
Particularly worrying from a renter registration perspective at the moment is the move to Individual Electoral Registration (IER) next year, and constituency boundaries based on electoral registers with falling numbers of renters on them.
In Northern Ireland, where IER was introduced and the annual canvass abolished in 2002, renter registration fell from 63% to 26% within just five years .
Proposals for future constituency boundaries risk crowding out renters’ voices even more (though the boundary review has now been delayed). The plan to base constituencies for the 2020 election on the electoral register in 2015 which is likely to see a fall in renters, means that there could be many more hidden households in future, especially renters. This could even lead to a situation where an MP is technically representing 70,000 voters, but actually has many more people living in their constituency area.
In recent weeks we’ve been having really constructive conversations with the Electoral Reform Society and others about how to tackle this problem and give renters a voice. We recognise that there are many benefits to IER (such as reduced voter fraud), and that the solution may come from practical steps to increase renters’ registration. Awareness campaigns, working with landlords and letting agents to provide registration forms, even increasing the length of tenancies to reduce churn, could all be ways to help renters gain political clout. Grass-roots registration campaigns – like Bite the Ballot for young people – are another proven way to increase registration.
We’ll keep pushing for politicians to care about renters: and as they grow in absolute numbers smart politicians are bound to recognise the opportunity. But we need all the support we can get from those who care about democracy to make sure that renters are fairly represented, rather than being locked out.
It’s 50 days and counting to the election no one’s heard of…
We have been joined by candidates from across the political divide to call on Theresa May to tackle the rock bottom turnout predicted for the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections in November.
This letter comes after thousands of our supporters contacted Theresa May demanding that she take action to avoid the PCC elections resulting in the lowest turnout in British election history.
The signatories for the open letter include the Rt Hon Alun Michael MP, Brian Paddick; one time Deputy Assistant Commissioner in London’s Metropolitan Police Service, Ann Barnes, former Deputy Chair of the National Association of Police Authorities, and Martin Underhill, the detective who worked on the Sarah Payne case – together with PCC candidates from across the country and the political spectrum.
The letter asks the Home Secretary to rethink the way the Police and Crime Commissioner elections are being run and takes some common sense steps to get voters engaged with the process.
We’re calling on Theresa May to
The Home Office seems to think that if you build it, they will come, but we know this isn’t how elections work. If the Home Secretary is serious about people having a say she needs to listen to the warnings coming from all sides and take action now.
Send a message to Home Secretary Theresa May today telling her: If you’re going to do it, do it right. Write to Theresa May.
To The Right Honourable Theresa May MP
November’s Police and Crime Commissioner elections threaten to result in the lowest turnout in British history. With 50 days left to polls opening we urge you to rethink the way these elections are being run and to take some common sense steps to improve turnout.
The Home Office White Paper ‘Policing in the 21st Century: Reconnecting police and the people’, tells us that the purpose of Police and Crime Commissioners is “to empower the public – increasing local accountability and giving the public a direct say on how their streets are policed.”
Police and Crime Commissioners want the chance to speak for local people. This will be impossible with rock bottom turnout and as the Police Federation have warned; low turnouts can also open the door to extreme candidates.
All we ask is a level playing field for candidates and the chance for voters to make an informed decision. There are a few basic steps that would increase turnout and give these positions the authority they need to be effective.
First. Ensure voters know the elections are happening and who the candidates are. The Electoral Commission will be mailing every household to let people know the elections are taking place. Include information on candidates so that people know who they are expected to vote for.
Second. Take to the airwaves. We know broadcasts boost turnout, and they should be part of the Government’s package for raising awareness. With only three weeks from nominations closing to polling day, candidates must get maximum exposure.
Finally, we ask the Government to pledge never to hold a major election in the winter again. You can improve turnout and reduce costs in one fell swoop.
Candidates are working hard to engage local voters. We need you to fulfil your side of the bargain.
Katie Ghose, Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Society
Brian Paddick, Former Deputy Assistant Commissioner Metropolitan Police
Rt Hon Alun Michael MP (Labour candidate forSouth Wales)
Ann Barnes, (independent candidate forKent)
MartynUnderhill, (independent candidate forDorset)
Ian Johnston QPM, (independent candidate for Gwent)
Mervyn Barrett OBE, (independent candidate forLincolnshire)
Tal Michael, (Labour candidate for North Wales)
Christine Gwyther, (Labour candidate for Dyfed Powys)
Sarah Russell, (Labour candidate for Leicestershire)
Paddy Tipping, (Labour candidate for Nottinghamshire)
Lee Barron, (Labour candidate for Northamptonshire)
Godfrey Daniel, (Labour candidate for Sussex)
Harriet Yeo, (Labour candidate for Kent)
Ron Hogg, (Labour candidate forDurhamandDarlington)
Sarah Flannery, (independent candidate for Cheshire)
Simon Hayes, (independent candidate for Hampshire andIsle of Wight)
Michael Felse, (independent candidate for Greater Manchester)
Ian Chisnall, (independent candidate for Sussex)
Brian Greenslade, (independent candidate for Devon andCornwall)
Sue Mountstevens, (independent candidate for Avon andSomerset)
Peter Williams, (independent candidate for Surrey)
Richard Hibbs, (independent candidate forNorth Wales)
Alan Charles, (Labour candidate for Derbyshire)
Dr Simon Murphy (Labour candidate for West Mercia)
For some people low turnout is an opportunity.
In the last week we’ve gained enormous traction for our report that Police and Crime Commissioner elections are set for record low turnout – 18.5%, quite possibly the lowest in British history.
But who really gains from low turnout? At home and abroad it’s the candidates – and the companies that seek to assist them – that have profited from record low turnouts in police elections.
And ‘profit’ in this case is both literal and figurative.
As one Tom Waterhouse writes in his blog at Rhombus Communications this week:
For any candidate hoping to become a Police Crime Commissioner, the prospect of an 18.5% turnout should grab your attention like a blue-flashing light in your rear view mirror. Elections on that kind of turnout means your “short campaign” activities and polling day operations will be absolutely vital, because the lower the turnout, the lower margin of victory for the winning candidate.”
Low turnout is a gift to candidates who have the resources and the form to make the most of it. Tom elaborates, with Gloucestershire as the case in point:
An 18.5% turnout means just 84,000 people will vote. Taking into consideration national opinion polls and parliamentary constituency results from 2010, you could expect the race to be quite close with perhaps the winning candidate having around 41%, then, say, 36%, 15% and 7%. That would give a majority of 4,000. That’s tiny compared to the 445,000 electorate.”
We couldn’t have put it better ourselves. If you’re going to win you have to focus unrelentingly on a tiny minority of voters. He adds:
In terms of squeezing the most out of your campaign efforts in low turnout elections, targeting is absolutely crucial because candidates need their resources focussed on electors most likely to vote. For this, the information contained in previous elections’ Marked Registers is solid gold.”
And this isn’t exactly unusual. Just look to America where 5% turnouts aren’t unknown for sheriff elections. One US e-advocacy company advertises itself thusly:
The election of a county sheriff is often decided by only a handful of votes. Even a single vote can make the difference between victory and defeat. Election campaigns for sheriff often have low voter turnout because it often occurs on dates that do not match the general election. Because of this, the winner often is the person who can get more people to the polls. That requires getting your supporters motivated enough to go out and actually cast a vote.
“Because the challenges of sheriff elections are not much different than any other local elected position, a sheriff campaign website can help make the difference!
In these elections a handful of votes will count. That’s the reality. And companies are stepping into the gap to give the candidates that can afford their services an edge in campaigns. Should we condemn these entrepreneurs? Absolutely not. They’re simply pointing potential clients to a very real opportunity.
That handful of votes will swing an election. Professional campaigners would be mad to ignore it. Their clients, the candidates, would be mad to ignore it. And that’s because in the often grubby business of securing votes the only thing that counts is a win.
But what about the rest of us? A higher turnout is in all our interests. The Police Federation warned this week that a low turnout is an open door to extremists. Empty polling stations mean we can expect candidates supported by a tiny minority of voters claiming a ‘mandate’ to take the decisions that affect all of us.
The Government decided to press ahead with elected Police and Crime Commissioners. But if they’re going to be legitimate we need the Government to take some common sense steps to ensure a decent turnout.
Tell the Government. If you’re going to have elected Police Commissioners, do it right.
In 1998 voter turnout in Metropolitan Council elections outside London hit 25.2%. It was the lowest turnout figure in modern times. The approaching Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections now threaten to break that record.
The elections in November will cost a whopping £75m but evidence suggests that we can only hope for a turnout of around 18.5%.
We’ve looked at some of the key drivers of voter turnout. From calling a poll in November, from holding back on any opportunity for candidates to make their case to voters, the government seems to have done everything in its power to keep polling stations empty.
From the start the PCC elections have been marred by controversy and now it seems that the Home Office is shirking its responsibility to provide voters with even the most basic information that the elections are taking place.
The stated purpose of electing Police and Crime Commissioners was to improve accountability and reconnect the public and the police – an aim which is clearly undermined by a painfully low turnout.
The Home Office’s 5 point plan to drive turnout into the ground
Despite the fact that independence and diversity were proclaimed as important features of PCC candidates, unrealistic eligibility rules mean that strong independent candidates with minor misdemeanours in their teenage years could be excluded. This is in addition to the fact that independent candidates were already hampered by the lack of a funded mail out as unlike party candidates they will have no network of campaigners or party resources behind them to help them reach out to large constituencies.
Conversely an extremely low turnout could unfairly advantage extremist candidates who would never succeed in winning over a bigger proportion of the electorate.
The PCC elections is beginning to look like a perfect storm.
Those pulling the strings have not done their homework and as a result this election looks primed to degenerate into a complete shambles. Put simply, if the people elected to localise decision-making over how our streets are policed, do not represent local people, what is the point of having them?