A warning to students: Ministers are shrinking your voting power

Tens of thousands of students are disappearing from the electoral register as the 2015 general election approaches. So why are ministers insisting the change in the rules is proving "very successful"?

The first statistics released since the transition from household registration to individual electoral registration were published on December 1st. Or at least, they were supposed to be – but many local authorities have been avoiding doing so because of a legal loophole.

With the Electoral Commission taking its time to release national numbers, it's up to the Labour party to come up with the first realistic figures about the true impact of this potentially devastating reform. Opposition researchers are working hard on that, but in the meantime snapshots of the situation in towns with high student populations reveals a dramatic fall-off.

Cardiff, Liverpool, Newcastle and Brighton and Hove have all seen a reduction in the size of the electoral register of over 15,000, well over ten per cent of the existing electorate.

The worst fall was in Cardiff, where in spring 2014 there were 263,960 registered voters. In 2015, that number drops to 239,258 – a dip of 24,702.

Liverpool is in second place. A source on the city's Labour-run Cabinet has already confirmed the largest student hall of residence saw a 90% fall in registration, from 926 in 2014 to just 101. Now we know the total reduction in the size of the register is 20,616 voters.

Southampton, Manchester and Oxford have all seen falls of over 10,000 voters, while Norwich and Canterbury – whose populations only just exceed 100,000 – have seen dips of 4,885 and 693 respectively.

"Early indicators suggest that hundreds of thousands of people have gone missing from the electoral register," shadow constitutional affairs minister Stephen Twigg said.

"This will affect an already highly imperfect register, which is estimated to be 7.5 million short of the number of eligible voters. The government have been hugely complacent in preparing for the transition to individual electoral registration and this complacency is now decimating levels of registration."

That complacency was revealed in deputy prime minister's questions on Tuesday this week, when minister Sam Gyimah insisted the transition to individual electoral registration was proving "very successful".

Gyimah points out there will be an automatic carry-over of voters for the 2015 general election, meaning anyone who disappears will be artificially included in the list of those allowed to vote in the looming contest.

But many fear the relief that offers will be short-lived, leaving students disenfranchised when it comes to vital elections in 2016. The warped statistics will also mean the boundary changes review coming next year will redraw Britain's electoral map in favour of the Conservatives, enlarging rural constituencies and shrinking the total number of the urban ones with mobile populations that usually favour Labour. That, unsurprisingly, has left many Labour politicians fairly fed up.

Today's statistics are troubling for students because the answer is painfully obvious. It used to be that students would be automatically registered en masse by their university. That principle has been abandoned, dumping responsibility for registering on students themselves. It is not their fault barely any of them have yet bothered to do so.

"Labour has called on the government to allow registration en bloc for certain institutions – such as schools, care homes and Universities – and to allow councils to use local data more extensively," Twigg added.

"These figures should come as a wake-up call in Whitehall to take emergency steps to ensure the register is maximised before the general election. We simply cannot afford to have our democracy undermined in this way."

Meanwhile a legal loophole has emerged which explains why some councils have been so elusive in providing their data.

Any kind of by-election – be that a parliamentary one, a police and crime commissioner by-election or a local government by-election – means the electoral returning officers don't have to bother publishing any statistics at all until February 1st.

The wait for more information on the scale of the problem continues – with Labour expected to publish its first national guess at the damage the transition is causing shortly.