There were many rumours last week of the government bringing forward in the very near future a Bill to tackle some much overdue electoral housekeeping. Two potential changes were outlined in the manifesto - the roll out of voter ID at polling stations, and the ending of the 15 year limit on the entitlement of overseas voters to participate. Two further changes were not mentioned but will be of much greater interest to many people.
The first is postal voting. Formerly restricted to expats and members of HM Forces overseas, and to the housebound sick and disabled, the numbers involved were negligible. Then came Blair's pollution of our democratic institutions. In December the volume reached 38% of all votes cast - of 31.8m votes cast, 12m were postal votes. Objections are twofold. Primarily is the extent to which postal votes can be abused by vote harvesting, personation, coercion or diversion. No reliable figures are available on the extent of this, but then, if abuses were successful, they would not easily be discovered. The introduction of photo ID at polling stations without having restricted postal votes will of course only vastly increase the numbers of postal votes, and we must ask ourselves whether we want an electoral process in which 75% of ballots are cast in a way that evades all the scrutiny, security and transparency of polling stations, votes and boxes. The second and more minor objection is that the act of physically voting - the polling station, poll card, interactions with polling officials and fellow electors, recognition that those voting with you may be voting for another candidate and so on - is in itself a powerful reinforcer of local democratic identity, one of the parade drills of the Little Platoons.
The second change is to initiate a fresh boundary review, but this time based on the existing 650 parliamentary seats rather than the somewhat aged review on Cameron's instructions that sought to reduce the number of seats to 600. The registers of electors on which the Cameron reviews were based are now even further distant, and were Cameron's review to be recast on the 2019 registers it may produce different boundaries. However, fundamentally I object deeply to Cameron's attempts to reduce the numbers of MPs by 50.
In 1922, the first election carried out within our current national borders, we had 615 seats for a population of around 44m. We now have a population of some 66m. In addition, the centralisation of the State since the Great War has meant that MPs now have very much more on which to legislate. Before that time, water, power, gas, health, hospitals, almshouses, welfare, roads, lighting, transport, planning, public health, licencing, education and policing were funded, designed, managed and delivered locally by democratically accountable members and bodies. Whilst I will campaign for parliament to divest itself of many of the powers accreted over a century, we still need 650 MPs - if only for the great reforms that the Prime Minister must introduce to get our nation and people back upon an even keel.