Trouble brewing in the Lords

 

This could get nasty.

Conservatives remain quietly furious with the Lib Dems for promising to block their cherished objective of equalising the size of parliamentary constituencies in time for the next election - which could cost them a potentially crucial gain of 20 plus seats.

And if they disliked that, they'll loathe this.

Two senior Lib Dem peers have put down a battery of amendments to plans to change the way we all register to vote, in the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, due for detailed debate in the Lords next week.

Now, we seem to be building up to another clash over changes to the electoral system designed to, depending on your viewpoint, remove bias towards Labour, or gerrymander the electoral map towards the Conservatives. There's a bit of backstory to this. In 2010, the then Conservative Party Chairman, Lady Warsi, claimed that the Conservatives were deprived of three parliamentary seats because of electoral fraud - and there are plenty of Conservative MPs who regard that as a considerable underestimate. Under the Coalition agreement, the government is committed to speed up moves already agreed by all parties, to tighten up the system.

The Electoral Registration Bill aims to switch the system to individual voter registration - IVR. At the moment, the head of every household is required to list all the voters on their premises; in future, all adults will have to fill out their own registration form.

All parties are signed up to this - but there are worries about what will happen if it is not implemented is such a way as to catch more elusive voters. When this was introduced in Northern Ireland, the result was a sharp drop - 10% - in the number of people registered to vote, and the Electoral Commission warned that only 60% of those who should be on voting registers might find themselves enabled to vote under the new arrangements.

Of course, much of the drop in Northern Ireland may well have been because phantom voters created by electoral fraudsters or bureaucratic error were flushed out, but Labour fears a lot of poorer voters were disenfranchised too. People who don't like form-filling, or don't want the debt-collectors to find them, or who are shifting from flat to bedsit to house-share might, for different reasons, fail to be caught by the system, they argue.

Lord Tyler has frequently spoken on constitutional matters in the House of Lords, such as this debate from 28 January 2010

All this shouldn't affect the next election, in 2015, because the new system will not bite until afterwards. But the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English local elections in 2016 will all be conducted on the basis of all voters having to be registered in the new system. And, crucially, the next review of Parliamentary boundaries will be based on the number of voters who show up on the electoral register compiled under IVR. If lots of poorer, more mobile, more minority (and perhaps more Labour-leaning) voters disappear from the register, many Labour-held constituencies will have to be expanded to include other voters, and perhaps become more vulnerable to other parties….in other words, Labour see IVR as a way of eliminating their voters, if enough effort is not put in to finding them…

And on that point, the Lib Dem Lords, Chris Rennard and Paul Tyler have weighed in. They've put down a series of amendments to the bill which toughen up the duties of the officials who compile the electoral roll…changing the word "may" to "must" at several points.

Lord Rennard, the legendary Lib Dem election organiser, points to events in America where, he says, Republicans have been trying to make it harder for people to get onto voting registers, calculating that fewer Democrats will be registered whilst more affluent groups, who are more literate and likely to have English as their first language will remain.

His answer is for the bill to require, rather than merely permit, various actions to find voters, and allow them extra powers to fill gaps in the register.

For example, their amendments would allow electoral registration officers to use data from the Student Loans Company, the Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency, tenancy deposit schemes, and credit referencing agencies. Part of the reason for this is that the state pension database is being used to check details on the existing register and so pensioners will generally be included in the new registers if they are on the old ones. But the DVLA database and the others are not being used in the same way, and that could leave people of working age under-represented.

In Northern Ireland, schools are involved in the process of 16-year-olds being registered in anticipation of their 18th birthdays - but there are no plans to do this in Great Britain.

At this stage, the changes the two peers propose are 'probing amendments' that challenge the government to explain their policy. (And the explaining will be done by the Lib Dem Lord Wallace of Tankerness (sorry, I originally said Saltaire, getting my Wallaces mixed up!) one of the law officers).

Actual votes are generally not taken in the committee stage - but when the bill moves on to report stage, if they have not been reassured, the groundwork will have been laid for an alliance with Labour peers which could defeat the government.

 
Mark D'Arcy, Parliamentary correspondent Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

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