Part of Labour’s general election strategy is to win the votes of first-time voters, young and old. This requires getting those who have never voted before onto the register and out of the door on polling day: not a small challenge. Too often the conversation around registration and turnout is focused on the problems and not the solutions. I went into Labour’s final National Policy Forum meeting at the weekend determined to come out with some solutions.
Radical changes to the way we vote in Britain could transform turnout. This will be particularly crucial with the introduction of votes at 16. Alongside the extension of the franchise we must ensure that measures are in place to encourage more people to vote.
Registering all young people to vote in schools and colleges will ensure, first, that they are able to vote. The challenge then is to make voting a quick and simple task that is easily incorporated into the daily routine. For young people, this means opening polling stations in secondary schools, colleges and sixth forms, allowing them to vote before school and in between lessons. For voters more widely, situating polling stations in supermarkets, libraries and train stations – the public places that people visit as part of their daily routine – will take the hassle out of voting and ensure that time is not a barrier to voting in our time-poor society.
Ending the restriction on voting in one specific polling station – which in many cases is not in the most convenient of locations – would also make life easier and result in a higher turnout. Rather than having to plan it in to your day (or, in the case of many who are eligible to vote, just not bothering), you would be able to pop into the first polling station you come across as you were going about your normal day. If you had forgotten to vote and saw a polling station while driving home from work or doing your shopping, you would be able to drop by and cast your vote.
Online voting is also worth exploring. This could dramatically increase turnout if a way were found of making it secure.
Political education in schools, as part of a wider, comprehensive and mandatory citizenship education programme, would also help to increase voter engagement. Teaching the value of voting, the impact of politics and, quite simply, how to vote, as well as encouraging lively debates among pupils to help them develop and articulate their views, is vital alongside the introduction of votes at 16.
These are some of the ideas that I took forward to the National Policy Forum, following conversations with a wide range of young people. I am really pleased that the party is now committed to introducing political education, implementing a voter registration programme in schools and colleges and placing ballot boxes in schools and colleges. We will also be considering placing ballot boxes in prominent public places for a week before polling day and piloting secure systems for electronic voting.
While these ideas require a Labour government to be elected in 2015 before they can become a reality, there are other things that we can be doing right now to increase turnout. Members of parliament and councillors write to constituents on a daily basis, helping out with casework. It would cost next to nothing to include a voter registration form and a postal vote form in with the correspondence that is already being sent out.
We now run lots of councils, giving us the ability to get the voter registration message out further. In Nottingham, for example, the council has displayed adverts at bus stops encouraging people to register to vote. Many councils have supported Bite the Ballot’s campaign to get more young people registered to vote.
Clearly these ideas alone do not provide all the answers. An inspiring vision for the country, backed up by exciting policies, which enthuses voters will no doubt remain the best way of ensuring a high turnout. But a few changes that turn voting from an effort into a two-minute task could be transformational.
I cannot wait for a Labour government to introduce votes at 16. While we’re at it, let’s transform the system for people of all ages!