Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science.
The Elections Bill is going to have a big impact on how we conduct elections. It is where the political becomes very practical – since the way we all behave during elections is going to change.
There have been real threats to the integrity of elections, notably in Tower Hamlets where there were problems with postal ballots and abuse of council funds to favour particular groups of voters. Eric Pickles subsequently produced a good report on which many of the provisions in the Elections Bill are based.
There is a clear need to tighten security in key weaknesses in the system. Normally changes in election law are based on cross-party negotiations, but these changes are Conservative measures, so it is important they are based on robust evidence of the undeniable need for reform.
The Bill is a missed opportunity to up-date voter registration. There is an increase in the numbers of people who rent in the private sector and move around a lot. This makes it hard to get on the electoral register.
When I make the case that young people have a raw deal getting started on the housing ladder, one riposte is that if they turned up and voted then politicians would pay more attention to them. But the real reason why young people are less likely to vote is not apathy, but that more and more of them are renting in the private sector which makes it become harder to get on the electoral register. The Government’s Bill is a missed opportunity for a major reform on access to it.
But there is a second problem too which is much more immediate and direct. The Government is proposing that voters have to provide photo ID before they can vote. The two main ones are a passport or a driving license, though some others are allowed too. If a voter doesn’t have any of these, they can be issued before the election with a specific new photo card by their local council.
This is a big change in the way we vote. There will be some voters who turn up to vote at the next election unaware that they need photo ID, and who will be turned away.
The argument is that we need to tighten security. And there are indeed voters who are surprised they don’t need photo ID at present. Our electoral system does have its problems, but voter personation does not appear to be a significant one – of 58 million votes cast in 2019 there were only 33 allegations of personation at polling stations leading to one conviction and one caution. Moreover, confidence in the security of the polling station is high – there is much more anxiety about postal votes.
The danger is that in trying to make the case we increase doubts about the electoral system. These risks were put very well by the Commons Public Administration Committee: ‘”introducing a compulsory voter ID requirement risks upsetting the balance of our current electoral system, making it more difficult to vote and removing an element of the trust inherent in the current system”.
The Government has narrowed down the proposals from Pickles, who envisaged a much wider set of ID documents: “there is no need to be over-elaborate; measures should enhance public confidence and be proportional. A driving licence, passport or utility bills would not seem unreasonable to establish identity.”
So this is classic gold-plating of regulation. It comes at a real expenditure cost – up to £180 million over ten years. It is hard to justify this measure if we want to cut public spending and reduce unnecessary regulation.
When photo id was first introduced in Northern Ireland, around 2.3 per cent of the electorate did not vote because of the requirement – equivalent to about 1.1 million people at the next general election. The next election day could be full of media coverage of people across the country being turned away from polling stations. There could be some constituencies where the majority is smaller than the numbers turned away. If Conservatives win by just a few seats, there is a real risk of a political and constitutional crisis. The next Conservative Government will have enough to deal with, and won’t be helped if it starts with questions about its legitimacy.
The Elections Bull should strengthen the integrity of our elections, but every measure should be proportionate to the risk. The number of disenfranchised voters could be much bigger than any plausible number of fraudulent votes.
Behind this there are issues of electoral advantage. There may be Conservatives who think this is all justified by such considerations. But the political advantage might not be actually what is assumed. Who are the voters who might not have photo ID because they have stopped driving and are not travelling abroad? Perhaps they might be wary of bureaucracy and dislike the hassle of getting a new ID card. One private study confirms the intuitive judgement that older Tory voters are most likely to be put off by the new requirement.
Ironically, when we opposed Labour’s ID cards one of the Tory arguments was that this was the thin end of the wedge, and if they were introduced they would next be needed for voting. But now Tory activists who may themselves be very sceptical are going to have to devote a lot of time to persuading similarly sceptical Tory voters that they need to go to the Town Hall to get a special voter ID card. Is this a good use of campaigning time?
Instead of making it harder to vote, imagine that instead we realised there is a political opportunity here. Those people in the private rented sector may be potential Tory voters if only they were offered a credible prospect of getting on the housing ladder. We should become once again the party that believed in spreading property ownership rather than presiding over a system where it is going backwards. Then we really would be true to Disraeli and extend the franchise to new voters with a fresh Tory message.
David Willetts recent tabled an amendment to the Elections Bill to widen the range of documents acceptable as proof of identity.