As the Minister for the Constitution, responsible for democratic engagement, I want to start by thanking everyone in this room for the work that you do, and continue to do, to ensure that our democracy is one of the strongest in the world today.
With 46.5 million people currently registered to vote, our electoral register is the largest it has ever been. More people than ever before know that their voice matters in our democratic process.
This success is your success. If we are to ensure that our democracy is as diverse, representative and inclusive as it should be then government cannot act alone. By working together as one electoral family, by implementing Individual Electoral Registration smoothly and successfully, by dedicating your time and energy to ensuring everyone can have their say, you made possible the largest single exercise in democracy that modern British politics has ever witnessed, with nearly 3 quarters of the electorate casting their vote, and with 17.4 million people voting in favour of leaving the EU, delivering the biggest popular vote on one side in British history.
Our democracy has never been so clear, so overwhelming, and yet already we face calls seeking to undermine the result. Some critics claim that the public were misled, with calls to establish a so-called ‘office of electoral integrity’, a Truth Commission to oversee elections. Yet this is talking down the British people as if they are unable to make their own minds up in a democratic election, and need to be told how to think.
It is this kind of politics that gives democracy a bad name, patronising the electorate, as if they could not be trusted with their vote; that their votes do not matter.
In reality, the unprecedented levels of participation in the EU referendum demonstrates that the British public still retain faith that their vote does count, that our democracy can indeed still change the world around us.
The challenge before us all is to ensure that we maintain the level of democratic engagement generated by the referendum; that we continue our drive towards a more complete and accurate electoral register; that we seek to remove the barriers that prevent any under registered group from participating in elections; that we create a democracy that works for everyone.
I wanted to share with you today the government’s vision for how we intend to ensure that that democracy works for everyone. These broadly fall into 4 key pillars:
- equal seats: the Boundary Review will address current inequalities in the size of constituencies ensuring every vote carries equal weight and we cut the cost of politics.
votes for life: the government will ensure that British citizens who have moved overseas have the right to register to vote in future elections.
- every voice matters: We will reach out to all communities, including those who feel socially excluded, to encourage and empower them to have their say - ensuring no community is left behind.
- a clear and secure democracy: We will continue to drive improvements to our electoral registration system to ensure it is fit for the 21st century, while putting in place measures to make the system more secure.
Our democratic commitment to the British public has been clear in the government’s manifesto, which we will continue to implement. We are determined that by establishing the principle of equal seats, we will ensure that every vote is treated equally. The historic injustice that has seen some constituencies twice the size of others must end. The independent Boundary Commissions are currently undergoing their present consultation, but the government remains committed to the unwavering principle of boundary reform.
The government also remains steadfast in its support for First Past the Post as a voting system for electing the Westminster Parliament. It is vital that our democracy remains clear to understand, and clear to participate in. I am not convinced that any system of transferable vote or proportional representation achieves this.
In the recent Police and Crime Commissioner elections, over 311,000 ballots were rejected out of a turnout of 8.8 million, compared with just 25,000 in the EU referendum with a turnout of 33.5 million.
Five years ago, the public sent a clear message in decisive referendum, against the Alternative Vote, and the government will continue to honour that referendum result. First Past the Post not only delivers clear results, it provides the confidence that we must have in our democracy.
Recently, I also restated the government’s manifesto commitment to votes for life for British citizens living overseas, setting out for the first time how we intend to implement this policy change. Modern technology and cheaper air travel has transformed the ability of expats to keep in touch with their home country. If you were born in the UK, or have been a citizen living in the UK, then by the next general election, you will have an inalienable right to decide your country’s future.
Currently, overseas voters are just one of the many under registered groups. People who self-define as BME, frequent movers and renters, young people, and those with a longstanding mental health condition or disability, among others are also less likely to be correctly registered.
Under registration can be found in every city and town; groups that remain silent, whose voices currently go unheard in our democracy. Those who do not register to vote because they feel that the system does not work for them; those who do not participate in our democracy because the barriers that exist between their communities and society are too high.
It is too easy to use language such as ‘hard to reach groups’; to blame those who fail to register as if they have excluded themselves from our democracy. Equally, it has become convenient for us all to imagine democratic engagement as a process that can be performed from the centre, with Westminster preaching its values to those who can find little resonance in its message to their everyday lives.
If we are to have a democracy that works for everyone, I am determined that government should not only seek to build on the success of the EU referendum, but to better seek to understand the needs of these under registered groups on their own terms, and the barriers that currently exist.
Already I have visited Birmingham and Cardiff in recent weeks to hold roundtable events with school pupils and civil society groups.
Over the next few months, I intend to focus my attention outside of Westminster, visiting every part of the country, every nation, as many cities and areas of the country as I can, in order to listen and understand how we can best tackle the persistent pockets of under registration in our modern democracy. At the same time, I will be working on how we can best use data to establish what pattern, geographic or otherwise, lies behind this democratic deficit.
I am determined that no one, by accident of their birth, background or circumstance, should be prevented from participating in our democracy. Yet it is clear that our system continues to work against, rather than for, some of the most vulnerable in society.
For survivors of domestic violence, for women living in refuges, being able to vote is more than just a cross on a ballot paper; it is a renewed statement of their freedom that’s rightfully theirs. The fact that the current system of anonymous registration prevents many, if not most, of these women from registering to vote in the first place by simply setting the bar for registration too high, means that they are not just being denied the chance to vote, they are being denied the chance to express their freedom.
It cannot be right that those women, whose voices have been silenced by others, should now find themselves silenced by our current registration process, which is why I am working together with Women’s Aid and other domestic violence organisations to reform anonymous registration to ensure it works for those who need it most.
Above all, I hope that I can work with every single one of you here today, to ensure that we can achieve the most complete register possible. I know that everyone here in this room is united in our determination to ensure that everyone currently eligible to vote should have the opportunity to participate in our democracy. Electoral registration isn’t simply a bureaucratic process that we go through for its own sake: it is an essential public service that forms the bedrock of our democracy.
The government will continue its programme of Modern Registration, using existing data to target activity more effectively, to ensure that we can reform the Annual Canvass for the needs of modern society and individual voter registration. Already the 3 pilots that are on-going are realising significant successes in simplifying re-registration and reducing its costs, and we aim to expand the number and type of pilots over the coming months.
If we are to retain confidence in our democracy, the accuracy of the electoral register is paramount. Individual Registration is here to stay, and there can be no return to the out-dated and flawed system of block registration. Equally, we must have confidence that the electoral process itself remains untainted from accusations of fraud and corruption.
We cannot allow the status quo in such circumstances to continue, which is why the government is seriously considering proposals contained in Sir Eric Pickles’ review into electoral fraud and the Law Commission’s report, and will formally respond later in the year, laying out our plans to strengthen the law, and deliver on our manifesto pledge to tackle election fraud. If our democracy is not secure, it corrodes the very faith that we need to retain in our democratic institutions.
I want to ensure that we have a democracy that works for everyone. A democracy that treats every part of the United Kingdom as an equal and every British citizen as an equal partner. A democracy that works for those under registered groups, for vulnerable groups whose voice struggles to be heard, for communities whose faith in democracy remains uninspired, that we ensure that every vote matters. And a clear and secure democracy which we as a country can have confidence in.
Already you have achieved so much to ensure that we can be proud of our democracy. But we must never cease to go further to ensure that our democracy is the best it can be.