The government’s electoral reform agenda: an assessment

alan.jfif (1)The Johnson government is committed to maintaining the core element of the electoral system – First Past the Post. But it has indicated its intention to pursue a range of other reforms. In this post, Alan Renwick assesses its agenda. Most urgent is the need to update campaign rules to reflect the digital age – but the strength of the government’s will to act here remains unclear, and recent steps that could undermine media independence are worrying. Other proposals are mixed, but some have the potential to strengthen the system.

Boris Johnson’s government has indicated plans to reform four aspects of the electoral system: (1) who can vote; (2) the process of voting; (3) how constituency boundaries are set; and (4) the campaign rules. This agenda excludes the core of the system: the principle of First Past the Post. But that is unsurprising: as I examined in a book published in 2011, political parties rarely change the electoral rules that empower them; there is no reason to expect an exception in current circumstances.

This post examines each of the four areas of proposed action. The third and fourth areas deserve most attention: valuable reform of boundary setting is possible; and strengthened rules around digital campaigning are urgently needed. Whether the government will focus on what matters remains to be seen.

Who can vote

The Conservative manifesto said two things about the franchise: the voting age will not be reduced to 16, as has happened for local and devolved elections in Scotland and Wales, and as Labour promised in its manifesto; but voting rights will be extended to all British citizens living abroad, eliminating the current 15-year limit.

I have set out the case for votes at 16 in a previous post, and will not rehearse the arguments here. Enfranchising expats, meanwhile, is unlikely to cause much controversy. Yet it appears to be a relatively low government priority: the December Queen’s Speech said merely that the relevant measures would ‘be brought forward in due course’. Commitments to so-called ‘votes for life’ appeared in the 2015 and 2017 Conservative manifestos too, but no progress followed.

The process of voting

The government wants to reform the voting process for two reasons: to improve accessibility for people with disabilities; and to tackle electoral fraud.

The first of these is uncontroversial. Though it was not mentioned in the Conservative manifesto, the December Queen’s Speech (repeating commitments in the Queen’s Speech in October) set out proposals that reflect recommendations made by the Electoral Commission last May.

Measures to tackle electoral fraud, by contrast, are contested. Voters in Great Britain will have to show ‘an approved form of photographic ID’ to vote at a polling station (as those in Northern Ireland already do). Procedures for postal and proxy voting will also be tightened. During the election campaign, Labour condemned the voter ID plan as ‘clearly discriminatory and a blatant attempt by the Tories to suppress voters, deny people their democratic rights and rig the result of the next General Election’.

Such concerns matter: anything that limits electoral participation is, other things being equal, undesirable. Yet criticisms of the likely effects of requiring ID are easily exaggerated. Electoral Commission analyses of pilot schemes run at local elections in 2018 and 2019 found that very few people were turned away from polling stations for lack of ID and did not subsequently return: never more than 0.7% of voters, and sometimes below 0.1%. They also found no clear evidence of an overall effect on turnout.

But the benefits from requiring voter ID are often exaggerated too: there is simply no evidence of substantial voter fraud at polling stations. There were just two convictions for personation (i.e., claiming to be another person) at polling stations between 2015 and 2018 (see Electoral Commission reports from 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018). The 2016 Pickles review of electoral fraud, which underpins the government’s proposals, acknowledged that ‘very few polling station staff had suspected that any personation had taken place where they had worked (11 out of 1289 poll workers surveyed)’. It is true that fraud of this kind may be hard to detect, but the lack of evidence of a real problem is striking.

Constituency boundaries

The Conservative manifesto said ‘We will ensure we have updated and equal Parliamentary boundaries’. That is an unsurprising priority: quite apart from the principled value of broadly equal constituencies, ageing boundaries tend over time to disadvantage the Conservatives, as people move from less affluent, Labour-voting areas to more affluent Conservative-voting ones. Recent changes in voting patterns have diminished this effect, but not eliminated it. The average Conservative seat in 2019 had 2453 (3.4%) more eligible electors than the average Labour seat. Eliminating the gaps across the UK as a whole would have been expected to increase the Conservative majority by about 16 seats.

Providing for ‘updated and equal’ constituencies in itself requires little action on the government’s part: the current rules for boundary reviews, established in 2011, already require a review to be conducted by September 2023 and stipulate that, with only a few exceptions, constituencies cannot deviate from the national average electorate by more than 5%.

Still, the government is likely to feel obliged to pass fresh legislation. First, completing a review in September 2023 may leave too little time for implementation ahead of the next general election. The 2011 legislation envisaged an 18-month gap between the end of a review and the subsequent election, allowing administrators and parties time to prepare. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), the next election will take place in May 2024, just seven months after the conclusion of the planned review. If the FTPA is replaced to restore flexible five-year terms, that gap could be as long as fifteen months – but a government doing well in the polls will want to go to the country earlier. 

Second, a review conducted under the current rules would reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600. That is understandably unpopular among MPs themselves. There is also no good reason for it. Though the Commons is large by international standards, MPs in the UK have unusually active constituency roles, and parliamentary committees, on which most backbenchers sit, do important and valuable work. While voters might like the idea of having fewer MPs, they do not want to lose their local representatives – and some of the biggest losses would be precisely in areas where the Conservatives recently gained. It is not obvious why the government would want to expend political capital pushing through a reduction to 600 MPs.

Newspaper reports indeed suggest that the government plans to change the rules so as to retain 650 seats. Speeding up the review process should also be doable: boundary reviews take over two and a half years in the UK, compared with up to fifteen months in Canada and just six months in New Zealand. Any change to the timetable would need to be made with great care, however, to avoid any perception of political interference or undue haste.

Fresh legislation on boundary reviews will create an opportunity to address other weaknesses in the system. By international standards, the UK in fact has unusually robust processes for reviewing constituencies: the work of the independent boundary commissions means we are very far from the rampant partisan gerrymandering found, say, in the United States. Yet there is one glaring deficiency: while the review process is strong, implementation of any review remains at risk of political interference, for it requires parliamentary approval. The 2018 review was simply ignored: ministers refused to lay the draft order before parliament. Much earlier, the Labour government under Harold Wilson similarly refused to implement the 1969 review. 

This is a remarkable breach of the principle that partisan considerations should be excluded from boundary setting. Furthermore, a Conservative government has every incentive to fix it: given that ageing boundaries typically benefit Labour, maintaining the existing political discretion is most likely to harm the Conservatives. Addressing the problem would be easy: Australia, New Zealand, and Canada have all made implementation of their boundary review bodies’ final recommendations automatic, and the same could happen here.

The rules of campaigning and political discourse

The December Queen’s Speech said, ‘The Government also aims to launch a consultation on electoral integrity that will consider measures to strengthen the provisions that protect our democracy from foreign interference and to refresh our laws for the digital age.’

An ‘aim’ to ‘launch a consultation’ sounds like a weak commitment. Yet there is great pressure for substantial change both within and beyond parliament. The Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, and, in the House of Commons, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committees have all pressed the case. As I set out in a post just after the election, the current rules were written before online campaigning had any significance and fail utterly to accommodate its dramatic rise. As a result, campaign practices that undermine democracy – including huge spending in particular constituencies and the targeting of partial messages at particular groups of voters – risk becoming commonplace. The new chair of the DCMS Committee, Julian Knight, said in his election statement for that role that ‘there remains much work to be done to ensure… that social media is properly regulated during elections’.

Last month, another important report, from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency, called for ‘digital imprints’ showing who is responsible for online campaign advertisements, a centralised ad library, reform of campaign donation and spending rules, and greater powers for the Electoral Commission. Mirroring the findings of my report with Michela Palese last year on Doing Democracy Better, it also emphasised the need to promote high-quality information and better digital literacy. 

Decisive action by government will be vital in this area over the next year or two. Whether the will to pursue this exists remains to be seen. Meanwhile, healthy democratic elections also require vibrant independent media, with robustly impartial broadcasters playing a particularly crucial role. Recent government actions that appear to undermine the free press (condemned even in the Daily Mail) and imperil the future of the BBC are therefore worrying.

Conclusion

The government’s public pronouncements to date suggest it may be more interested in targeting voter fraud than in addressing the parlous state of our campaign regulations. Yet that would amount to fiddling while Rome burns. The most urgent item on the electoral reform agenda is to update the campaign rules to fit the digital age. Other positive changes are also possible, notably around boundary setting. Government, parliament, regulators, and others should work together in pursuing these key tasks.

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About the author

Dr Alan Renwick is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit and the co-author of Doing Democracy Better: How Can Information and Discourse in Election and Referendum Campaigns in the UK Be Improved?