Shadow Constitutional Affairs Minister Stephen Twigg has a brief he believes in. He gets the importance of electoral registration. Not likely to ever get news coverage, but 10m to 15m eligible potential voters left off the register has more importance to our democracy than most issues mentioned on a daily basis.
The new Individual Electoral Registration (IER) according to pilots by this government, could remove 9m from the register, on top of the 6m already estimated to be missing.
In an ERS event today, Stephen lists the problems; 50% of young unregistered, turnout gaps of 40% between the 18-24 age group and over 65s, turnout differences over 30% and rising between rich and poor. And that is among those who actually register.
The Tories and Lib Dems, by their actions show they're quite content to have more of this. Why bother about poor, young and urban voters who are unlikely to vote for them anyway?
Finally, Labour have woken up to this - If IER leads to big drops in registration, they will scrap it! They will try reforms first, but this is too big an issue to let lie, even if big interests would like it buried.
My question to Stephen was; why not experiment with a few randomly selected councillors to bypass the grinding tedium of party political selection processes and big money donors that always favour a middle or upper class candidate? Not surprisingly a party spokesman was not in favour of non party methods to widen representation.
And other questions were left hanging; Proportional local elections? Technology and direct democracy? Party funding?
But he seemed adamant on the Lobbying Bill, much to the glee of the 38 degrees rep. The Gagging Bill will be scrapped and charities and organisations encouraged to campaign in elections.
A long time advocate of proportional voting, Stephen was sadly quiet about a future Labour commitment on this. Also, I'm not sure he fully grasps why turnout is falling. Yes, a system where 53% of votes elect no-one (and most of the rest elect a foregone conclusion) is going to discourage registration and voting. But falling turnout is a global phenomenon whatever the electoral system.
Complex situations need to be addressed; big money (from around the globe) sets agendas, buys political influence and narrows debate. But more importantly there are costs to turning out to vote and more and more people are realising the small odds that their vote changes the result i.e about zero. People vote through habit, passion for a party or cause or because they like to support a winner. All of these incentives are disappearing fast. New incentives are needed and that is currently too radical for most politicians, even reforming ones.
If it is just a case of getting people to turn out and put a cross by a candidate or party at each election, I could fix this tomorrow. It is not some difficult issue to fix. Why go to the effort to vote when the impact of your vote is zero. Obviously no electoral system will much change that. The answer lies in other incentives. Lets reimburse those costs. Turnout to vote then get a tax rebate, paid holiday, days extra benefit payment. Compensate generously the financial loss and time used and I guarantee turnout of near 100%. Sounds too mercenary but we don't expect high turnout for other voluntary duties. And duty and habit are the main reasons people vote. We have lost the habit and turnout will continue to decline towards a minority pursuit if we don't think radically.
Ok. This doesn't get people engaged with their decision of who to vote for. But we have to start somewhere and getting high turnout is a good start.