As we mark the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote, this year will inevitably be a time to reflect on our democratic process. It is important to note that the Representation of the People Act 1918 was only a limited step in the right direction and that women did not obtain the vote on equal terms to men until 1928.
Last year was a pivotal one, with more young people having their say at the ballot box than at any election since 1992. As shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs, I am particularly proud of Labour’s election campaign, which resonated with young people across the country by offering hope for a decent future.
In December the government announced its long-awaited democratic engagement plan, with a promise to increase participation among under registered groups. After seven years in government, the Conservative party has finally recognised that large swathes of society are excluded from our democracy.
There is a real need to tackle this country’s democratic deficit. An annual study by the Hansard Society found that less than a third of people are satisfied with the system of governing, with very few people feeling they have any influence in national and local decision-making.
Yet the government’s democratic engagement plan offers neither the policies nor the resources that are necessary. As we reflect on political movements that have shaped the last 100 years, such as the Suffragettes, we recognise that democracy does not strengthen itself. It requires the political will and determination of people to fight for democratic rights.
In this spirit, we must continue to campaign for votes at 16, a promise we made in our three previous manifestos.
I have heard the arguments against: 16 and 17-year-olds lack maturity, have no desire to vote, and cannot be relied on to vote intelligently. Not only are these points unconvincing and patronising, but they share many similarities with the arguments against women and the working class gaining equal franchise.
Despite opposition from the political establishment, young people across this country have shown that they are determined to win the right to vote. Last year 950,000 young people voted in the UK Youth Parliament ballot called ‘Make Your Mark’, making votes at 16 one of their five priority campaigns.
It was therefore deeply disappointing that the Conservatives blocked Labour MP Jim McMahon’s bill in November to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. By sabotaging this important vote, the Tories have once again demonstrated to a generation of young people that they do not take their views seriously.
However, the fight will continue and 2018 brings a new range of opportunities to strengthen the case for extending the franchise. Following public consultation, the Labour government in Wales is bringing forward legislation to extend the voting age for all local government and devolved elections. We also have another chance to make our case in the Commons later this year, as votes at 16 is the subject for Pete Kyle MP’s private members bill, which will be debated in May.
Next to tackle the growing democratic deficit in this country we need to modernise our electoral registration system. Individual electoral registration has not achieved what we were told it would. Millions of people are still missing from the register, with disproportionately low levels of registration amongst mobile, marginalised and vulnerable voter groups.
This is particularly the case for homeless people and those without a fixed address, who are excluded from the online voter registration process. In England there are only 3,000 people without a fixed home address who are registered to vote. With 59,090 households accepted as homeless and 78,180 households in temporary accommodation, the level of electoral registration is clearly far from complete.
One way to drive up registration significantly would be to move towards a system where people are automatically placed on the electoral roll. This could be achieved by expanding the data sources available to electoral registration officers to lists such as those maintained by the DVLA, HMRC and other listings maintained by local authorities. Citizens could also be added to the electoral register at the age of 16, when they are issued with a national insurance number.
There is widespread support for reform. Accordingly to a survey conducted by the Electoral Commission, 58 per cent of respondents expressed support for automatic registration when a person receives their national insurance number. Labour MP Jo Stevens is looking to make progress in this area and has introduced a private member’s bill which we will be supporting later this month.
The government is opposed to such measures, claiming that registering to vote is a personal responsibility. But surely it should be the responsibility of government to do everything in its power to ensure that the electoral register is complete? The challenge for 2018 is to demonstrate that there is widespread support for automatic voter registration.
2018 should not be a year of complacency. As we celebrate the last 100 years of democratic change, we should be looking even further at what progressive and radical policies the Labour party can offer to build a democracy that works for the many not the few.