Television presenter and backbench MP Jacob Rees-Mogg appeared to let the cat out of the bag when he told the radical right National Conservatism conference in May that the government’s “clever scheme” to “gerrymander” elections by requiring electors to provide proof of their identity had “come back to bite” it. When votes had been cast in local elections earlier that month, “We found the people who didn’t have ID were elderly and they, by and large, voted Conservative,” the ex-minister said.
Not such a wizard wheeze after all, then. But could it be that in London next spring, when the capital will vote for its Mayor, the effect of Voter ID will be what Rees-Mogg claimed the Tories intended?
Even before those May elections, Christabel Cooper had identified for On London reasons why younger people in the capital might be the age group most likely to find themselves unable to present an approved form of photographic identification before being given their ballot papers, for example because they are less likely to have a driving licence and because young peoples’ travel passes are not, unlike those of older people, included on the list of documents acceptable at polling stations.
Younger people, on the whole, lean towards Labour. And now an opinion poll conducted for the London Labour Party has found that 20 per cent of Londoners aged between 18 and 34 do not have any of the types of ID required compared with 13 per cent of 50-to-65-year-olds.
Not surprisingly, Sadiq Khan, a Labour Mayor, has called for changes to the new Voter ID rules, brought in by the government last year, focusing on the exclusion of young adults’ travel cards from the list of acceptable ID and also asking for more options in general to enable those who might not have valid documents and for a better public awareness campaign.
The Mayor has expressed concern that thousands of Londoners could be turned away from polling stations next May and called the introduction of Voter ID a “cynical assault on voting rights” – perhaps the only opinion he and preposterous Rees Mogg share.
Does he have a point? The Electoral Commission said in April that 18 to 24-year-olds in the rest of England were the age group least likely to know about the new photo ID requirement, and its recent report on the conduct of the May local elections held in other parts of England concluded that what it called the “overlapping issues” of “the variations in ownership of accepted photo ID and in awareness of the need to show ID when voting in person” should be addressed.
The commission points out that turnout was lower at those elections than at previous comparable ones and its report says that four per cent of people who didn’t vote in them “listed the ID requirement as the reason”. Previous research had found that social renters, unemployed and disabled people and the “lower social grades” were the groups most likely to not have the ID they needed in order to vote, and a survey after the elections backed this up.
The report also says that people who are young or of black or mixed ethnicity are both the most likely to not have one of the required documents and were also most likely to have been turned away at polling stations in May because of that.
The vast majority of people who wanted to vote did so, yet the commission estimates that around 14,000 who went to a polling station were turned away – a number that does not include those who wished to vote but didn’t go to a polling station in the first place because they already knew that didn’t have the photo ID they needed.
Given the demographic make-up of those elsewhere in England found to not to have exercised their democratic right earlier this year because of Voter ID, it isn’t hard to see why Khan might be worried about the same picture recurring in London next year, but with more significance for the outcome of the mayoral election, given the relative youthfulness of London’s population and its high proportion of ethnic minority residents, two groups more likely to vote for him than for his (very right-wing) Conservative opponent Susan Hall.
But the implications of Voter ID should be of concern to all political parties in London. The poll for London Labour, conducted by Opinium, found that, overall, 15 per cent of Londoners of voting age don’t have a government-approved form of ID.
It would be a scandal if such a huge number of Londoners were either turned away at polling stations at next May’s elections for Mayor and London Assembly members or didn’t turn out at all because of government legislation many sober observers argue wasn’t needed in the first place. The same applies, of course, to the expected general election. Every effort should be made so ensure that those who don’t currently have the ID they need have got it in time to vote, including encouraging and helping them to apply for the government’s Voter Authority Certificate if necessary.