Many political activists will have noted BBC Parliament’s re-run of the 1992 election this Bank Holiday Monday. That election was significant because it represented the last time the Conservatives received a working majority.
It followed the poll tax which had seen hundreds of thousands of people voluntarily leave the electoral roll. Individual electoral registration (IER) is likely to result in the biggest single shift in the social balance of the electoral register since then.
Even with concessions from government, it stands to make a permanent and profound difference to the political landscape if left unchallenged.
The electoral register is already socially imbalanced. For example, an estimated 87% of owner occupiers are registered, compared to 78% of social housing tenants and a mere 44% of private tenants.
Certain ethnic minorities and younger people are also under-represented. These imbalances in themselves could make a difference in marginal seats, given that groups with higher registration rates are more likely to vote Conservative.
It is unrealistic to think that IER will improve the situation – indeed it could make it worse. Northern Ireland’s move to IER resulted in volatile registration rates for several years, and research now indicates there has been a genuine drop-off amongst disadvantaged groups rather than just a rectification of previous over-registration.
Some lessons have been learnt, such as keeping the carry-forward facility so people can be transferred onto the new register if they fail to respond to enquiries, but in Northern Ireland, rates in urban areas, particularly areas of deprivation, and amongst young people and the disabled, have noticeably fallen.
In Great Britain, IER is likely to be a more difficult process for these same groups. This is because the government currently intends that some electors will be ‘ported’ straight from the ‘old’ register into the new because their data can be matched against other officially-held information.
Others will have to make the effort to confirm their date of birth and National Insurance number before they can be registered. This creates an additional hurdle for people that some may simply not get round to jumping.
Data matching pilots have shown that matches are more likely in populations with lower mobility and stable employment, and that areas with high mobility and less overall stability, such as London, have significantly fewer matches.
For example, Stratford-on-Avon (which targeted low mobility populations and required at least 95% certainty for matches) achieved a match rate of 85.3% against the DWP database, whereas Camden (which processed its full register and required only 60% or greater certainty) achieved a rate of just 64.1%.
Even with refinement of the matching process, it seems improbable demographic disparities will decrease – with the result that the social imbalances in the existing register will increase.
And of course, imbalances in the register can affect electoral results. With the new parliamentary boundaries coming into effect for the 2015 general election, seats such as Chingford and Edmonton, and Halifax, could be tipped one way or the other based on differential registration rates amongst social groups. If the current state of the parties continues, this could be critical to who forms the next government.
Longer term, the next parliamentary boundary review will begin in 2016 – and the registered population will determine how many constituencies are allocated to each area. So urban areas, which are more likely to return Labour MPs, could become further under-represented in parliament.
So what needs to happen to minimise the unintended consequences of IER?
First, experience shows once people fall off the register, it is hard to get them back on. So the state of the register going into IER is critical to its health after the switch. It will form the basis for follow-up activity by local officers post-switch.
The official focus in the run-up to the 2015 general election will almost certainly be on making sure those registered under the current household system are transferred, a massive task in itself, with little resource to follow up those already missing.
So, every effort should be made to make sure the register is as complete as possible before 2014 – not just by the already-stretched electoral officers, but by political parties and any group with an interest in democracy.
As Electoral Commission research shows 44% of people who are not actually registered think they are, this is likely to be a worthwhile effort if properly managed and targeted – but planning and analysis needs to start now if effective and efficient action is to be taken.
Second, when the first IER registers are published in late 2014, a further effort will be needed to find as many of the ‘missing’ as possible, and get them back on before the general election. Relying on the ‘carry forward’ is not a sensible option as registrations made in this way are of questionable accuracy.
Without this concerted effort, the ghost of 1992 may return to haunt 2015, and beyond.