Over the days leading up to today’s Scottish General Election, I asked many of my fellow students whether or not they would be voting. Many responded enthusiastically, enfranchised for the first time – disregarding the Scottish referendum – as 16, 17, or 18 year-olds. But a large proportion of the answers I received were gravely worrying. Many told me that they didn’t feel educated enough, that they simply had forgotten to change to their new constituency, or that they hadn’t had time to register for a postal vote. The Electoral Commission’s social media drive and overhead billboards have failed to entice voter registration amongst citizens young and old. It seems that our system of electoral registration is failing to inspire many in society – especially students, as well as those who travel regularly. A boost in electoral bureaucracy, spearheaded by the Tories thanks to recent reform, is making our electoral system more deceptive, and is resulting in the creation of a relaxed political culture. The principles of our nation’s democracy are under threat.
There must surely be something wrong about a society which does encourage people to vote, but makes it increasingly difficult to. Several months ago, Tory legislation removed the ability for collective voter registration, and thus made it less easy to become enfranchised. Due to these new government moves, households and organisations such as universities can no longer place large numbers of individuals on the electoral register at once. To top this, electoral participation is alarmingly low. Around a third of voters – and regularly more – failed to turn up to their local polling station last May.
The fact that such large numbers of people choose not to exercise their right to vote, or are missing – either deliberately or accidentally – from the electoral register is a serious threat to the United Kingdom’s political society. How can governments be held to account? Why should David Cameron and his party be allowed to create such a political monopoly, making it easier for the older and more geographically anchored individual to vote? It is abominable that the government is willing to sit back whilst its agencies fail to make registration an effortless exercise.
As many as 800,000 previously eligible citizens were deleted from the register several months ago. It was further revealed that the electoral register has shrunk by 1.6 million since 2012. In no way have the Tories’ electoral register changes been beneficial to the UK’s democracy. Instead of being a source of inspiration and empowerment, the Electoral Commission has become growingly bureaucratic.
The worst part of the government’s changes is the disrespect for some of the most influential groups of society. Students, many of whom will have to register to vote for the first time, are being failed. Moving between multiple addresses, the government has not provided an effortless registration process for young people. Without the participation of young adults, results of past elections would be markedly different. Voting amongst those aged between 18 and 24 saw a 20% decrease between 1990 and 2010. Perhaps the government is willfully ignoring the youth vote, knowing that their increased enfranchisement would diminish chances for Tory victories. Either way, such blatant disrespect for mass enfranchisement is a crime against democracy.
Besides the Tories’ tactical registration reform, there are other reasons why the youth vote, in particular, is becoming increasingly smothered by those above. Party efforts for encouraging student voting seems very weak. At my student flat in Glasgow during this election campaign, I received a puny supply of direct electoral information. The provision of three leaflets from the Scottish Green Party was very acceptable. However, besides this delivery, as well as one mailshot from UKIP and another from Solidarity, I received nothing else. The fact that a number of the main parties in Scotland – the SNP, Labour, the Conservatives and Lib Dems – were not interested in attracting the student vote through direct canvassing shows that more must be done to sell the pros of enfranchisement to young people. Don’t get me wrong – a large number of young adults are very politically engaged. But those who lack in political knowledge and experience are being forgotten. Surely it is the duty of our governments to promote the excitement and empowerment which comes with electoral participation.
There are several quick and effective fixes to the seemingly increasing threat to our democracy and the UK’s political culture. It is clear that the Tories’ new enfranchisement regulations are having a seriously negative impact on participation, and excluding vast populations from political engagement. Along with increased direct support from individual parties, a perhaps if universities, colleges and other institutions – as well as households – had power to enfranchise people en masse returned, our nation’s democratic foundations would be stronger than ever. On top, huge registration campaigns must become the norm. An inspiring Electoral Commission should be built up, ready to promote the benefits of participation to all. In addition, the lack of direct canvassing towards young people is shameful. An increase must be seen.
It is therefore clear that the political parties of the UK are in danger of becoming complacent. Party leaders do not seem to want to talk to young people as much as they perhaps once did. It seems that the 1920s struggles for suffrage have not ended, and will not end soon. Next year’s Scottish local elections will inevitably receive markedly less attention than this May’s general election. A new era of democratic encouragement must come into being. The Tories’ recent electoral reforms are damaging the chances for strengthened British democracy. Elections should not be made difficult to take part in. For if this is the case, Britain is simply not a democracy. Only tomorrow will we find out how exactly Britain’s young people have exercised their votes in one of the several elections taking place today. Call me a cynic, but I fear that the figures for youth turnout will not be as high as they could be. Of course, those who are politically engaged will certainly be rampant supporters of their chosen party. But without stark rejection of the government’s new registration obstacle course, we will be quietly submitting to the removal of our greatest democratic rights.