London is our capital: home to millions of young people: students, unemployed, renters, workers. All the people who make up the global community that is London. But how strongly is this community represented through the democratic voice of London?
The short answer: not a lot. Although it is home to the Houses of Parliament, Downing Street and more protests and marches than you would find anywhere else in the UK, London is one of the UK’s weakest electoral voices. There are many eligible residents who are not registered to vote or have not turned up to vote, and many of the 35% of unborn Londoners in the UK do not even have the right to vote in elections that affect their daily lives. But activists, democratic and political groups alike are working to change this situation.
In September, all 33 London city councils and over 100 civil society organizations come together to organize London Voter Registration Week – the largest impartial and non-election specific democratic partnership in the UK between a regional authority, statutory bodies and a broad coalition of civil society. London Voter Registration Week aims to ensure that voter registration is a regular civic act that takes place all year round – not just close to election time – to give voice to under-registered and under-represented communities and to co -produce and co-deliver unique UK assets, including in EU languages.
The figures are worse for young and marginalized communities. Black, Asian, ethnic minority and migrant Londoners, including Londoners from the Commonwealth and the EU, are the most under-registered and under-represented groups along with young people. Currently, 1 in 3 young Londoners are not registered to vote. And in the rest of the UK, the picture is not much better: in the 2019 elections, voters aged 18-25 were the lowest turnout age group with 47% compared to 74% of the people over the age of 65.
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This year, London saw a 40.9% turnout in Mayoral and 41.8% in the London Assembly elections, one of the lowest nationwide May election turnout involving municipal elections in England, decentralized elections in Wales and Scotland and the infamous Hartlepool electoral. In fact, London has some of the lowest turnout figures in the UK: Scotland recorded a 63% turnout and even Hartlepool, with its population of 290,000, surpassed the turnout of London.
But the increase in voter turnout begins by encouraging people to register to vote, a free process that takes no more than five minutes but has not yet been completed by millions of Londoners.
Voting is the best way for Londoners to make their views heard and reflected, and to have a say on issues that affect them. Whether these matters fall within the jurisdiction of local councils or the UK government, they all impact people’s lives. Issues such as the construction of the Silvertown tunnel, the emergence of congestion taxes and the rapid rise in house prices are not out of the reach of public influence. The vote has an impact on all of these issues and the vast numbers of unregistered London voters reveal a waning confidence in the power of public influence.
Among the reasons for the low voter registration, based on voter registration units of 3 million, eligibility to vote is an important reason for the low registration levels. For migrants, eligibility to vote is complex and not easily understood – and the situation is not improving.
Although campaigns are calling for a move to a “one-size-fits-all” right-to-vote system in which every London resident would have the right to vote, the electoral bill – which has just been submitted for its second reading in Parliament – is intended to further complicate migrant rights voting in the UK. Rather than removing obstacles from voting, the bill will make it more difficult to vote by requiring voters to present identification at polling stations and complicate the criteria for eligibility to vote.
EU citizens who currently have the right to vote in local elections in the UK will no longer automatically have that right. Only those with stable or established status who arrived in the UK before 31 December 2020 will retain the right to vote in local elections. Those who come under the New Immigration System will have their right to vote only according to the government’s ability to guarantee bilateral agreements with individual member states. This will lead to bizarre and unfair situations where, for example, an Italian citizen who arrived in the UK before 2021 would have the right to vote, but an Italian citizen who arrived after that date would not.
This means that voter registration will require knowledge not only of someone’s nationality, but also of their status in the UK, the date of their arrival and whether or not the country they come from has a bilateral agreement with the UK.
This level of complexity and criteria can discourage residents from registering to vote and complicate the registration process for everyone involved in maintaining our healthy democracy, from our residents, to our volunteers who work as election administration officials.
However, many of the city’s migrants do not have the right to vote. About beyond 377,000 migrants do not meet the criteria to be EU or Commonwealth citizens and cannot vote, although they work and pay taxes in the city.
Long-term resident and Norwegian citizen Elise Anly cannot vote. Think, “It shouldn’t matter where I come from to vote on what’s going on at the park, school or bins in my area.” I have lived in England for 6 years and have never had a say. I feel even more cruel while working in the local government. ‘
While London’s voter registration problem is weakening the city’s electoral voice, the issue of the huge number of people living in the city who are unable to even take the first step to register cannot be ignored. London’s voice will never truly reflect its people if so many of its residents are unable to vote and so many of its population remain unregistered.
London’s character and pride derive from the fact that it is an open and diverse city; a global place full of people from all corners of the world. The government needs to review the election bill to expand the franchise so that London’s diversity is reflected in its democracy.