Parliamentary constituency boundaries in the UK are set to change at the next general election, following recommendations published in late June 2023. Kenn Rushworth traces the path of the Individual Electoral Registration reform through Britain’s political institutions to understand how it became integral to the parliamentary constituency review.
With the long-awaited final review of parliamentary constituencies recommendation handed to parliament in July 2023, it is worth exploring some of the context around how our proposed new political geography came to be. In doing so, we must travel back along the road that led to the implementation of the Individual Electoral Registration Reform (IER) of 2014, which saw the nature of voter registration and the makeup of registers themselves change in Britain. Introduced as an anti-fraud measure in Northern Ireland in 2002, its journey through parliament to becoming a key tool in the reshaping of the British political map was not straightforward.
Under Labour, the reform’s progress to becoming the new registration system for Britain ground to a halt almost immediately but eventually founds its way into law under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. Considering this, it is worth asking what made opposing parties support this reform at different points in time and what their motivations were.
A glance over the timeline of Individual Electoral Registration allows us to see it was, perhaps, not exclusively the anti-fraud measure it was presented as but instead a statecraft measure exploiting the difficulty of registration for young people, renters and ethnic minorities – which would in turn affect the makeup of constituency boundaries in Britain.
Hesitation and pressure
A hesitant Labour party, upon seeing the observable drop in registration levels in Northern Ireland in 2003/4, were also hit with the realisation that the key facet of IER – that people could no longer register or be registered by their cohabitants – would prove most detrimental to the registration levels of population groups most likely to support them, chiefly among them young people and people of minority backgrounds.
From early 2008 onwards, however, Labour could no longer hide from calls for change. The Council of Europe reported that postal vote fraud had become “childishly simple” in Britain and identified British elections as being “very vulnerable to electoral fraud”. This was pounced upon by Conservatives who in turn highlighted the Electoral Commission’s persistent calls for change to British registration since IER’s implementation in Northern Ireland in 2002.
The Council of Europe reported that postal vote fraud had become “childishly simple” in Britain
The Electoral Commission’s calls for the introduction of IER to “improve the quality of the electoral register”, were met by a Labour government response described by some of the British Election Study authors as “sympathetic but concerned over the drop in registration levels”. However, this would not be Labour’s only problem. Registered population does not affect the completeness of registers alone, population registers also inform the drawing of constituency boundaries. As a result, a win-win situation was in the offing for a Conservative party who had spent over a decade in opposition: a registration drop-off in groups likely to oppose them and a redrawing of political geography that would fall firmly in their favour. All from a reform which, on the surface, dealt with separate issues.
A noteworthy date in the winding journey of IER is 10 June 2009, which saw then leader of the opposition David Cameron and Lord Strathclyde somewhere between questioning and exclaiming: “Is it not time to ask the Boundary Commission to redraw boundaries?” Labour eventually added IER to the Political Parties and Elections Act of 2009, at the Lord’s Committee stage. Labour set out a gradual implementation to begin as of July of 2010, however, the loss it suffered in the General Election of May that same year saw Labour’s plans fall to the wayside.
The Rush to reform
In its programme for government, the coalition committed to an acceleration of the Individual Electoral Representation reform and by September of the same year the plans seemed to be in place. The gradual transition proposed by Labour was scrapped and IER would be rolled out in England and Wales from June 2014, and subsequently by Scotland in September following the Independence Reform.
In this period, the framing of registration was contested – Nick Clegg (then deputy prime minister) and Mark Harper (then Parliamentary Secretary for Political and Constitutional Reform) were met with criticism for portraying registration as a lifestyle choice in the White Paper of 2011, an odd choice for members of two parties who publicly supported the Electoral Commission’s call for IER to help create more complete registers. Strong pushback from the House of Lords led to the wording being revised. Liberal Democrat Lord Rennard summed up the end of the wording debacle by saying: “…everyone should welcome the Government’s recognition that there is an obligation to register to vote, and that this gives people the opportunity to take part in an election but does not require them to do so.”
Labour voices, however, were far from easily quelled on the new rapid and awkwardly framed route registration was taking. Deputy Leader Harriet Harman took the floor at the party’s 2011 conference to expound Labour’s fears:
“The Tories are hoping if they take away the right to vote from students, young people living in rented flats in our cities, people from ethnic minority communities… if fewer of them can vote, it will help the Tories win.”
The initial framing of registering and voting as lifestyle choices would be far more bluntly described as deliberate voter suppression by the Conservatives and portrayed essentially as a way of (mis)guiding people “on their way to disengagement” by Labour MP for Vale of Clwyd, Chris Ruane in parliament during the transition period in 2015.
Fears borne out
The fear was ultimately borne out, IER had a detrimental effect on the registration of young people, BAME citizens and private renters – all groups significantly more likely to vote Labour. Moreover, all groups likely to live in the inner-city areas that would be most greatly affected by the Conservatives’ designs on the redrawing of electoral boundaries.
IER had a detrimental effect on the registration of young people, BAME citizens and private renters – all groups significantly more likely to vote Labour.
Thus, it was argued, most notably in parliament by MP Emily Thornberry, that the “hastily implemented” IER system would see Labour votes shrink, which would in turn shrink Labour constituencies, ultimately resulting in fewer Labour MPs. The accelerated reform resulted in a decline of 603,074 register entries. This, combined with the proposed redrawing of constituency boundaries, would enhance the Conservatives’ immediate position and leave them in good stead for, what was then thought to be, the next general election due in 2020.
This has all the markings of a statecraft measure. A theory refined by Jim Bulpitt in his analysis of the Thatcher Administration (sadly not public access but the available abstract sums it up well enough) and expanded upon by Toby James for the years 1997-2007, Statecraft theory essentially boils the approach to governance down to the need to “win and maintain power”. Necessary to this being the showing of competency whilst in office or, arguably, the greater incompetency of your opponents.
Having only obtained the right to govern through forming a coalition, Conservatives needed to ensure victory before the next election came around. Individual Electoral Registration presented this opportunity by offering three things. Firstly, potentially lower registration levels for groups unlikely to vote Conservative. Secondly, the redrawing of constituency boundaries based on registers with greater proportions of Conservative voters. And lastly, the introduction of the reform being based upon Labour’s incompetency in dealing with postal vote fraud.
So, when we look at our redrawn constituencies following July 2023 it is worth acknowledging that it was all made possible thanks to the following chain of events: An anti-fraud reform introduced by a Labour government to Northern Ireland in 2002 – that was redesigned by the Coalition government – which led to drop in registration levels of population groups likely to vote Labour – in a period of sustained Conservative governance – that became a statecraft measure with the goal of redrawing constituency boundaries in the Conservatives’ favour. The latter of which becomes somewhat ironic given current polling numbers.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Image credit: photo by Heidi Fin by Unsplash