Rishi Sunak has brandished the starting gun for the election, but “cutting the green crap” has misfired badly.
The national mood is unlikely to improve in such a long campaign, where nothing serious is done beyond his striving for futile and destructive “dividing lines”. Public confidence in elections has plunged since 2021, according to the Electoral Commission. Due partly to years of deliberate voter suppression, as many as 8 million people are now not registered to vote. Who is surprised that this Tory government’s legacy will be a steep decline in trust in the working of democracy itself?
In Canning Town, east London, Citizens UK last week launched its campaign to register missing voters before the next election. These grassroots community organisers, best known for real living wage campaigns, have set up voter registration hubs to reach communities around the country through mosques, churches and temples, training leaders to register people.
At the launch, people told their stories about why politics matter: look, someone said, at all the new blocks of flats around here, but none ever affordable for us. Sahara has been sofa-surfing and sleeping rough after losing her job; now she organises a woman’s group in a temporary accommodation block. An Albanian organiser talks of the prejudice against her community: “All of us [they think] are criminals!”
According to the Electoral Commission, more people in Britain are now dissatisfied with how democracy works than people who are satisfied. Reasons for the doubt are first bias in the media, followed by lack of voter turnout and then failure to regulate party finances. Unsurprisingly, Conservative voters are four times more likely to be satisfied than not satisfied: well, they would be, when the electoral system benefits them? Their party has set about gerrymandering ruthlessly, deliberately depressing the vote. David Cameron prevented families from registering a whole household, so every young person has to remember to register themselves. He barred colleges and universities from registering their students. The party also wants fewer graduates. Wait for the upcoming caps on “low-value” university courses: graduates are least likely to vote Tory.
Last year’s Elections Act imposed voter ID, pretending to cure vanishingly rare voter impersonation, erecting a deliberate barrier to those without a passport, a driving licence or the voting enthusiasm to apply for ID from their council.
The government hijacked the Electoral Commission, putting it under its own control, so it is no longer the independent invigilator of party finances or of fair election administration, or the keeper of key electoral data and issuer of penalties for electoral wrongdoing. The act gives the secretary of state, Michael Gove, who devised it, power to direct the commission’s strategy and remit, free to instruct it not to investigate something, or to refuse to fund certain activities. Tories were angered by the commission investigating Brexit campaigns’ finances.
The act also changed the voting system for mayors and police and crime commissioners, switching from the supplementary vote to first-past-the-post. Why? Because letting voters express their second choice sees the natural anti-Tory majority (Labour, Lib Dems, Greens and nationalists) tending to put one another second. First-past-the-post lets Tories win with only minority support.
Fatalism greeted this extra skewing of an already crooked electoral system, where most people know their votes count for little and have no choice but to hold their nose and choose the least bad option. Tactical voting is now more widespread than ever, the political scientist John Curtice tells me, but it’s a warped and miserable attempt to circumvent the injustice of votes not counting in proportion to numbers cast.
Finding the missing 8 million unregistered people would be easy with automatic registration, as happens in most democratic countries, in which any contact with officialdom – the government’s digital services, HMRC, Passport Office, DVLA or local council – would also ensure everyone was registered to vote. I would make voting compulsory, certainly for first-time voters, as a quid pro quo for lowering the voting age to 16: those who vote once get the habit. In the 1950s, 95% of voters were registered; now it’s 86%, including virtually all over-65s but only 60% of the young. Tenure is key: owner-occupiers are 95% registered compared with just 77% of private renters, who are constantly on the move as the government stalls on a pledge to stop steeply rising no-fault evictions.
The commission’s survey finds that a rising number think it’s not worth registering to vote. That suits this regime very well. It’s for the next government to clean up politics, its rotten finances, absurd second chamber and warped electoral system.
Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist