The forgotten millions who deserve a voice

17% of eligible voters in the UK are not correctly registered to vote.  This represents as many as 9.4 million people.


Tom Brake is the Director of Unlock Democracy which campaigns for real democracy in the UK, protected by a written constitution.

In a deeply divided country, one of the most unifying statements that anyone can make today is that our ‘political system isn’t working’.

To many of us who campaign every day for a better democracy, this is not news. Organisations like Unlock Democracy have been campaigning for years to modernise our creaking democracy. It’s fair to say that for a long time, we struggled to cut through to mainstream public opinion.

The last few years in British politics have changed that dramatically.

The behaviour of the current government has exposed the deep rooted weaknesses in our political system. From Owen Paterson to Nadhim Zahawi, from Partygate to Matt Hancock on ‘I’m a celebrity’ and so much more, the double standards inherent in our system have been revealed for all to see.

Who doubts that there’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us?

This must change.

The problems run deeper still – our political system has created a fundamental disconnect between what the people vote for and what actually goes in Westminster. That’s a dangerous thing in any democracy and, left unchecked, will lead to more division, more disillusionment and a poorer future for our country.

It’s not enough to change the Government, the system has to change too. In the words of Sir Keir Starmer, “The Westminster system is part of the problem. As a system it doesn’t work.”

But today, I want to bring up another uncomfortable truth about our failing political system. It’s the millions of citizens who effectively live outside of it. They are forgotten and neglected.  They get no say in what goes on in our country.  Their views and problems simply don’t count.

The most recent Electoral Commission study (2018) found that 17% of eligible voters in the UK are not correctly registered to vote.  This represents as many as 9.4 million people. That’s not far short of the total number of Labour voters at the last General Election.

The research showed that nearly 1 in 3 of 18-34 year olds were not correctly registered, compared to just 1 in 20 over 65s. More than 4 in 10 people living in private rented accommodation were not correctly registered, compared to less than 1 in 10 of those who owned their own home.

You would hope that, in a healthy democracy, this level of disengagement with the political system would be of concern for politicians on all sides.  Sadly, we know that isn’t the case.

I do have some good news though.  The next Government could begin the process of re-engaging the forgotten millions with our political system. Better yet, it’s not expensive (it might even save money in the long run) and it’s been proven to work in other countries.

Rather than depending solely on a yearly audit of residential properties and Individual Voter Registration, we could supplement this with Automatic Voter Registration.

This is where people interacting with other Government services such as drivers’ licences, passports, benefits, etc are automatically added to the Electoral Register (they can opt out if they choose).

Many states in the US have already switched to systems similar to this with dramatic results. In one state, the cost of gathering each registration via this route is 3 cents, as opposed to 83 cents by the traditional paper methods.

But much more important is the dramatic rise in voters registered to vote. In Colorado, US, a state of 5 million voters, an Automatic Voter Registration scheme linked to drivers’ licence applications added over 200,000 new voter registrations in a single year!

The Welsh Government looks likely to implement a similar scheme in the near future for Welsh elections only. We think it’s time the Westminster Government did the same.

We know that registration alone is not going to be enough to give the forgotten millions a voice, but it is an important first step. Their presence alone in turnout figures at elections will highlight their existence and, we hope, force politicians to engage with their issues and tackle the big question – how can we build a better, more inclusive political system?

Unlock Democracy and a coalition of democracy organisations are campaigning to encourage all political parties to commit to Automatic Voter Registration in their next manifestos. I will keep you informed of our progress in my future columns.

The forgotten millions deserve to be heard.

Instead their numbers are set to be swelled by a new wave of exclusion from our political system. I’m talking about the introduction of the requirement to show photo ID in order to vote in all English elections, Welsh Police & Crime Commissioner elections and UK wide general elections.

It’s the biggest change to how we vote in a generation and very few people know it’s even happening – just 33% awareness in a recent poll.

The Government’s own figures suggest that over 2 million people will not have one of the limited number of approved IDs (in a blatantly discriminatory way, young people have fewer to choose from). Research has shown that those without ID are more likely to be from disadvantaged groups.

A free certificate is available.  But people have to apply online, through a complicated process. The Government’s own figures suggest that fewer than 10,000 people (that’s just 0.5% of the total) successfully applied for a free certificate in the first weeks of the scheme’s operation.

The potential number of forgotten voters is likely to grow exponentially if this doesn’t change. The tiny Voter ID trials that took place recently showed that of the significant number of voters turned away without ID, many didn’t return to vote.

In 2019, 47 million people cast their vote in the elections. Voter ID is specifically designed to target the crime of personation. The Electoral Commission found there were a total of 33 personation cases, of which 2 resulted in a conviction or caution in 2019.

It appears that for those 2 crimes, the Government is introducing a security measure that could prevent at least a hundred thousand people from voting.  You can join our campaign to oppose it here:

Our political system is in chaos. It lacks accountability. It doesn’t deliver what people vote for. It excludes and ignores millions and the numbers are growing.

Its flaws are too big to ignore any more.

Will the next Government have the courage to do something about it and re-enfranchise the voiceless?  Or stick their head in the sand and accept further voter disengagement and dissatisfaction.

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