Wednesday, 23 May 2012

This voter registration drive. Why, exactly?

High turnout is good. It is an unequivocal Good Thing. In fact, it is perhaps the only social good to which all democrats – at least technically – aspire, because it affirms our faith in our chosen system; a metric for the distance we stand from chaos. In other words: reach a turnout of zero, and you’re no longer a democracy.

At the same time, for those of us who have worked at the political coal-face as staffers, the detail of elections is our bread and butter. We are intimately acquainted with wards, polling districts, the intricacies of contiguous and non-contiguous boundaries in a way which is not entirely normal (as I said to a former colleague a couple of weeks back, it is a measure of the total anorak this party has made me that, even years later, I can still recount the names of the parliamentary divisions in cities I have never lived in: Southampton, Sheffield, Liverpool). And it is this same, backroom party perspective that caused me a butterfly-like feeling of apprehension as I watched Ed Miliband announce “the biggest voter registration drive for a generation” at the Progress conference ten days ago.

I want to feel pleased about this and, in one sense, I am. It’s important that we formulate policy for reconnecting voters with politicians and something, looking at recent election results, that Britain urgently needs. But it is one thing to propose a policy, and quite another to roll up your sleeves and implement it yourself from Opposition. Or, put it this way: I’m not happy with the state of the health service, but that doesn’t mean the party should go out and build its own hospitals.

So, the first point is: shouldn’t this be the role of government, rather than party? While it’s a fair comment that government doesn’t exactly seem to be killing itself to get people to polling stations (and, indeed, it may even not be in its own interests to do so, although that’s debatable), does that mean we should take matters into our own hands?

Second, the art of party management is the best use of scarce resources. How will it be paid for? Labour is not the Democrats (perhaps this worked for Obama, but his party also has funding far in excess of our wildest dreams). Neither does it have the larger state funding of some Continental parties. And it is currently broke. We’ve always done a little voter registration, but this is different. In short, should we be using what little money we have on a big push, with demonstrably diminishing returns for increasing effort, and which will surely not come for free?

Now, it may be that we can leverage the resources of the community organisers Movement for Change, who look to be part of the deal: all to the good, but that will surely not do it all (and what figures have we seen on their performance in London’s voter registration, did it make a difference)? Simultaneously, we have some big challenges, especially in Scotland, coming up in the next couple of years, while proposed changes to the funding rules could result in less, not more, funding for Labour. This programme needs absolutely not to be a massive diversion from the main chance, i.e. the ruthlessly focused campaigning that we’re, well, rather good at.

And finally you have to ask the question, having got someone to complete a ballot paper, will they vote for us anyway? There is a lovely, and possibly apocryphal, story of an elderly lady who always insists on calling the local Tory party to get a lift to the polling station, just so she can vote Labour and waste their resources at the same time. But it’s about more than that: it’s also about the fine work that my colleague Anthony Painter has done with Searchlight’s Nick Lowles in Fear and Hope, pointing out that modern British society is segmented in many new and different ways, less class-related and more about the social groups they feel part of. Many of us have trudged round an estate which was once naturally Labour territory, to be rudely awakened by how many residents were prepared to vote for a Tory party which would do nothing for them. Or for a minority party. Or along solely ethnic lines. Or who were simply lost causes for ever voting at all.

In short, it’s probably still true that the worse-off are less likely to vote than the better-off. But that doesn’t mean that, if and when they do, they’ll vote for us. Even if these non-voters came, marginally, to vote a little more for us than for other parties, how much difference would it actually make – especially when we compare it with what we might have achieved spending the same money in a more targeted, less scattergun, way?

There is an appealing altruism in the scheme, to be sure. But when you’re managing party resources, there are times when the right thing to do is to be entirely selfish in favour of your higher cause, not altruistic.

Why? Because this is party, not government; here we deal in thousands, not billions. When we get into government, we can spend all the money you like on voter registration. But at that point it does not make us broke, and it is as a non-partisan buttressing of the democratic process, not a tool to help us get into power.

I want to like this idea, I really do. If it were to work, it could make a big difference to winning us the next election.

But I’m struggling to see how it will work.

This post first published at LabourList


  1. Still not engaging with those of us who lived through Bliar/Brown. Last Lab canvasser I (politely) said No to, now it is probably a spear in their chest.

  2. Ooh, you are violent. Please be nice to my comrades. They're all very decent.

  3. Ok then, political asylum where do I apply to?


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