Phil Pope makes the case for widening the UK franchise
Socialists should support proportional representation because it is fair, but it will also make it easier to add millions of people to the electoral register.
Filling in electoral registration forms seems like a necessary chore, but we can do away with this requirement which effectively de-registers people every time they change address.
Under our current system, we need to know that people vote in the constituency where they live. Otherwise, parties would bus their supporters around the country to vote in close-run marginal seats. A proportional representation system, as well as frustrating the practice of gerrymandering, makes it irrelevant where people vote. As well as being able to use any polling station one finds convenient, this also means that exactly where each voter is currently living becomes irrelevant for the electoral register.
Five groups of people are excluded from registering to vote. Nearly 100,00 prisoners are denied the vote as punishment (though this may have no effect other than adding to their alienation from society).
Half a million people live in various tax havens and are given no representation at a national level. Over 700,000 British citizens living abroad have lost the right to vote in the UK under the 15-year rule. About three million foreign nationals living and working in the UK are not allowed to vote in national elections (though we do allow Commonwealth and Irish citizens).
Then there is a diverse group of people who, though they have the right to vote, face increased barriers to staying registered and casting their votes. Rough-sleepers; people living in hostels, B&Bs, or caravan parks; sofa-surfing youngsters; travellers of various kinds; seasonal workers; those temporarily living abroad; people hiding from stalkers or fleeing domestic abuse; and lastly millions of students and private renters who change their address frequently.
It is possible for all these to vote but we know from census data that at least four million of these people are missing from the electoral register. All told, over eight million people could be added to the electorate. Though it is fair to assume that many of these will be unlikely to vote, many others will be naturally progressive voters from under-represented and marginalised sections of society.
Labour conference voted to “extend equal rights to vote to all UK residents” but this only addresses the legal exclusion of some of these groups, and none of the practical barriers to registration.
If we no longer need to re-register when we change address, we could simply register to vote once and remain registered until the day we die. Immigrants could register to vote when they apply for residency and remain registered until they emigrate.
The technical issues of preparing a new national registration system would be relatively trivial and a huge amount of work of continually updating local registers would be saved. If socialists are not already persuaded to support proportional representation on the grounds of fairness, they should also consider the electoral advantage of helping to enfranchise millions more voters.
Phil Pope is co-chair Bristol Labour LCF