People’s Pledge referendum diary: Week five

How the electoral register stands in the way of direct democracy.

By Christopher Bruni-Lowe

Public vs private.

Before you start panicking, no this campaign diary hasn’t strayed off topic and turned into some broader existential discussion on the pro’s and con’s of the two sectors. This particular public vs private question may perhaps at first seem unimportant, but is in fact a crucial distinction of which any good campaigner should be aware. I’m talking about the different electoral rolls – yes there are two separate versions – and the debate as to who has access to which set of data. There are currently 79,000 registered voters in the Thurrock constituency, yet at present only 41,000 ballot papers for the People’s Pledge EU referendum vote will be sent out automatically. This presents a dilemma for our campaign, and is entirely down to the fact that only one of those electoral rolls is available to us.

For those of you not completely up to speed on the finer details of electoral rolls, the public/edited version is available to anyone who can pay £150, while the private one is available only to political parties or individual candidates standing in council ward elections. The public roll, available to all commercial organisations, generally contains about 60% of the electorate; in Thurrock it is closer to 50%. We face a slightly more uphill battle in that it appears those voters on the edited version of the roll –the only one available to us- are generally less aware when it comes to individual political issues, and in some cases almost completely a-political. This obstacle is far from insurmountable, indeed it's worth noting that of the hundreds of Pledge campaign-branded posters already displayed in windows across Thurrock, not one hung in a house that had a voter registered to receive a ballot paper. Nonetheless, it makes for a frustrating extra factor to deal with, particularly when one remembers that the aim of the campaign is to give every voter the opportunity to have a say on whether they support the holding of an EU referendum.

In order to tackle this obstacle properly, there are three options. The first would be that we align ourselves with a political party to gain access to the private electoral roll, which would cause data protection problems. The second would be to register as a political party ourselves, albeit one which did not stand candidates. Moral and ethical considerations aside, given our campaign's overtly non-partisan nature, neither is an option. The only remaining possibility requires us to devote ourselves to knocking on every single door in Thurrock: we go out and find all the other voters in the constituency and make it our job to get them interested in what our campaign is doing and in doing so, convince them to sign them up in order for Electoral Reform Services Ltd to be able to send them a ballot paper. Thanks to the commitment of our campaign team, this monumental task is actually proving to be relatively straight forward – although it is an additional variable we could have done without.

Having to register voters in this rather unconventional way will be, I predict, a major obstacle to the full scale rolling-out of a direct democracy agenda that many –myself included- would like to see. If there is significant, demonstrated, measurable public support for an issue, then I would be in favour of testing it through the prism of local or national referenda. But I do believe despite recent developments (I'm thinking here of directly elected local mayors and police commissioners) that the Swiss model of direct democracy is a long way off yet for the UK. We are so far behind the curve when it comes to people power and direct democracy that unless a serious review of constraints like the one we are now dealing with takes place, I fear the status quo looks set to remain indefinitely.

The Robertson ruling of 2001 paved the way for the creation of what we now call the edited electoral register. It came about as the result of one man’s well-justified fight against the misuse of electoral data for direct marketing purposes. But it is also having a far more wide-ranging, and to some extent detrimental, effect on local democracy; something of course that could and would not have been envisaged more than a decade ago. The need to change the way councils pass on voter information came about because of marketing companies becoming more sophisticated in their targeting strategy, and yet even with the progression and sophistication of political campaigning, there has been no corresponding change that accommodates campaigns like the People’s Pledge.

Not only are more and more people ticking the box to keep themselves off the public register – more than 40% – public officials are also actively promoting this option of self-exclusion, as the information commissioner did in July 2008, followed soon after by the Local Government Association. The trend is worrying for those of us who are advocates of direct and local democracy. At present, it means that our campaign to try and provide people with a voice and a vote [on the EU] is considered akin to cold callers selling double glazing door to door.

Looking at the remarks from Local Government Association at the time of the review does demonstrate why a review needed to happen. Ninety-eight per cent of election officers in councils around England agreed that government should abolish the register. They said they didn't want "to be part of the process that generates money for junk mail companies in this way" and that "selling the electoral roll undermines democracy, dissuades people from voting and gives people the impression that their council is profiting from selling their personal information".

It "undermines democracy, dissuades people from voting". Since when does trying to obtain the details of a voter in order to provide them with a ballot [such as the one the Pledge is organising] undermine democracy and dissuade people from voting? And I am not alone in being concerned at where these constraints leave a campaign like the People’s Pledge. Those we have canvassed – in their thousands – are perplexed as to why they would have been unable to be informed about such a vote or sent a ballot paper automatically by the Electoral Reform Services if we had not personally knocked on their door. Many have subsequently stated that they didn't really understand the implications of ticking the box to come off the edited register. The fact that we have so far signed up more than 3,000 people whose details we initially didn't have, and that they otherwise would have been excluded from automatically being eligible to get a vote is a testament to the fact that there have been some negative, if unintended, consequences of the changes brought about by the Robertson report. If ordinary voters in Thurrock can make the distinction between wanting to be eligible for postal votes like the one we are trying to ensure everyone receives and not being flooded with direct mailing from insurance companies, then I fail to see why there exists no third way of them opting into such a set-up.

Of course for a minority of people, door stepping for a vote on the EU could be just as unwelcome as a Tupperware salesman knocking on the door at night. I concede that a referendum on the EU may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I am sure though that there is at least one issue, outside of national /local elections, that people would like an additional vote on. The current system of electoral registration would prevent that.

There is also an inconsistency in who can receive the data in question. Before announcing the referendum in Thurrock, we looked at another 12 constituencies to see where the vote should be held. In four of those seats, the local council electoral services office offered us the full register. It appears some are happy to take into the account this distinction between companies selling double-glazing and campaigns like ours providing people with a vote and a voice.

What the People’s Pledge is trying to do is to act as a vehicle for the majority of the population who we are told support an EU referendum, to have their say. The race is on to contact the 38,000 who currently will not get a vote in Thurrock owing to a failure in having data protection be applied evenly and practically, yet we are making significant progress and feel this is a race we can win. But whatever happens on April 5th and irrespective of how many additional people we can manage to provide with their ballot papers, if referendums are the future then the broader challenge posed by the current system of voter registration must be reviewed and redressed.

Christopher Bruni-Lowe is campaign director and co-founder of the People's Pledge.