Defining ‘Levelling Up’ – best effort yet?

Chris Game

PoliticsHome, the online Parliamentary news source, recently commissioned a Redfield & Wilton Strategies poll into the public’s awareness and understanding of the Government’s ‘flagship’ slogan – sorry, policy – of ‘Levelling Up’.

It wasn’t great – the awareness and understanding bit, I mean, not the poll. “Somewhat” and “moderately aware” responses formed the clear majority, with a further third of respondents shamelessly admitting “no understanding at all”.   

Which left 14% reckoning they were “well aware” – confident perhaps that they’d not be pressed for details. That’s one in seven potential voters claiming familiarity with the Government’s two-year-old core domestic policy.  Hardly impressive, but I’m sorry – I didn’t believe this particular sub-sample of the Great British Public, even when I first read it.

That is, before the week in which we learned that none of the HS2 eastern leg, the planned Northern Powerhouse Rail, and the Government’s cap on social care costs were, as widely supposed, integral to Levelling Up

Not the least of my reasons for doubting that 14% “well aware” figure was that I’d question whether that many Conservative MPs (50+) would seriously have claimed such familiarity. Even returning from October’s annual party conference, they were openly pleading for fewer “buzzwords” and some “meat on the bones” to offer their increasingly disaffected constituents.

Hardly surprisingly, considering all they’d got from the proverbial horse’s mouth – Levelling Up Minister Neil O’Brien at a Policy Exchange fringe event – was that it’s a “four-fold concept”, involving empowering local leaders and communities, growing the private sector in areas with lower living standards, improving public services, and heightening civic pride. Just what PoliticsHome’s 14% had in mind, no doubt!

But then O’Brien got carried away, almost parroting Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “It’s big – You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. You may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to …” 

Adams, of course, was describing space. Compare O’Brien on Levelling Up: It’s “a huge expensive thing … and will help all people who’ve long felt neglected”.  And there’ll be even more “in the Levelling Up white paper we’ll be publishing … (pause for drumroll) … shortly”.

Or not so shortly, as we learned this past weekend from the DLUHC’s otherwise largely silent ‘big hitter’, Michael Gove – but quite possibly featuring “swathes of rural England [electing] powerful American-style governors”. Odd that O’Brien didn’t mention them!

Either way, it’s frustrating for all concerned, particularly with Ministers having been handing out – and some of their constituencies receiving – tranches of supposedly Levelling Up-type funding for over two years now. So many tranches, indeed, that it’s genuinely hard to keep up.

And that’s not the purpose of this blog, but even a highlights list would include:

* £3.6 billion Towns Fundlaunched as effectively the new PM’s first policy initiative in July 2019, this one would “unleash the full economic potential of [eventually 101] English towns … as part of the Government’s plan to level up our regions”. 

An initial 1,082 towns were narrowed down to the “most needy” 50%, then grouped regionally by “officials” into high, medium and low priority.  All 40 ‘highs’ were selected for funding of up to £25m, with ministers choosing the remainder “based on the information provided and their own judgement”.

Which enabled Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, to judge his junior ministerial colleague Jake Berry’s 270th most deprived constituency as still pretty ‘needy’, in apparent exchange for Berry making a similar evaluation of Jenrick’s Newark.

* UK £220 million Community Renewal Fund awards to help 100 particularly needy places/communities across the UK prepare for next year’s launch of the (very much bigger – est. £1.5 billion) UK Shared Prosperity Fund that will replace EU structural and investment funding.                          

Bids were ranked on five ‘metrics’ – productivity, skills, unemployment rate, population density, and household income – with final funding decisions made by the Secretary of State for the (now) Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Department, “after considering any comments from ministerial colleagues”. No actual mention back then of Levelling Up, and disgruntled moans this time from MPs and councils across the spectrum – but, with over £15m to Moseley Road Baths, it wasn’t all bad.

* £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund – this one is definitely about Levelling Up, bringing together that department, the Treasury, and Transport to invest in “high-value local infrastructure”. Focus is on “places where it can make the biggest difference to everyday life, including ex-industrial areas, deprived towns and coastal communities”. 

Come the results, though, we were back in Towns Fund territory – Sajid Javid’s Bromsgrove constituency and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’ Central Bedfordshire being levelled up still further from their positions among the least deprived fifth of authorities nationwide.

As with most of these exercises, the assessment process and criteria are explicit, but without providing the key information successful or, even more, unsuccessful bidders really want.  There are “pass/fail gateway criteria”, assessment criteria – here covering “strategic fit, deliverability, value for money, and characteristics of place” – giving GB bids a potential score of 100.  Following which, Ministers are increasingly involved, together with and guided by officials (of course), but in an essentially indeterminable way.

MPs, naturally, react at least in the first instance to whether ‘their’ patch has ‘won’ or ‘lost’ in these funding contests.  Not so the Commons Public Accounts Committee – Labour-chaired, but Conservative-dominated – who, pretty well from the outset with the Towns Fund, have criticised severely the blatant Ministerial involvement in the “not impartial” selection process.

Civil servants had ranked towns into three categories by local need and growth potential, then chosen all 40 ‘High Priority’ ones. Whereupon Ministers then selected a further 60, heavily represented by Conservative MPs, from the Medium and Low priority categories. Twelve Low Priority areas won out over Medium Priority towns, including Greater Manchester’s Cheadle, ranked 535th out of 541, but with a vulnerable 2,336 Conservative majority.

“Vague and based on sweeping assumptions” was the Committee’s verdict on Ministers’ selections, which risked jeopardising the civil service’s reputation for integrity and impartiality.

With something at least as sophisticated and certainly more objective evidently required, up stepped WPI (Westminster Policy Institute) with its Levelling Up Index. It attempts almost exactly what the Government claims it wants: a comprehensive socio-economic statistically based identification of those areas (though by parliamentary constituency, rather than local authority) most in need of levelling up.

WPI’s Index assigns all English and Welsh constituencies ‘Levelling Up’ rankings – from the most needy, Blackpool South (1), to the least, South Cambridgeshire (573) – then divides them into three categories: Priorities, Borderliners, Achievers.

Achievers, mainly in the South and upwardly mobile suburbs of major urban centres, perform better than Borderliners, who constitute the national average and are judged to require support in certain areas. Levelling Up Priorities, though, should be places, disproportionately in the North, Midlands, and Wales, that have historically suffered through industrial decline, and often additionally through Government spending policies.

Six indicators combine to determine a Levelling Up score: spending power; financial dependency, based on Job Seekers’ Allowance and Universal Credit claims; crime rates; deprivation scores; health measures; and empty commercial properties.

Better still, there’s an excellent interactive WPI Index Map, the enlarged West Midlands section of which shows clearly the prioritisation the six indicators suggest our region’s constituencies should be accorded in any objectively conducted Levelling Up exercise.

The map’s core message barely needs commentary, but some individual Levelling Up scores are useful. The whole metropolitan West Midlands is a Priority, with the exceptions of Borderliners Edgbaston (sounds familiar – 208) and Stourbridge (210), and Achievers Sutton Coldfield (452) and Solihull (524).

Other Birmingham scores range from Erdington, Ladywood, and Hodge Hill (9, 10 15), through Perry Barr, Hall Green, Yardley, and Northfield (43, 55, 60, 62), to Selly Oak (156).

Viewed pictorially, we look pretty determined to get our deserved recognition. To me, anyway, we resemble a rather ferocious, albeit three-legged, tail-docked Cockapoo – about to attack those South Staffs Achievers, before making mincemeat of Boris’s Peppa Pig.

 

Photo

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

How the climate crisis is changing Europe’s economic landscape. After four decades, the pandemic and especially the climate crisis have silenced the exponents of fiscal orthodoxy. Keynes is back.

Jon Bloomfield

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jmenj/

Despite the disappointments of COP26, it’s important to acknowledge the momentum the climate movement has gained. Denialists are in retreat, while all governments are under pressure to strengthen their climate targets and actions. The climate crisis, the pandemic and the outcome of the German elections are all profoundly changing the prospects for European politics. The neoliberal right doesn’t like it but, after four decades in absentia, Keynesian economics is back.

Orthodoxy shattered

The first big sign came in the summer of last year, when after several months of sharp debate the European Union agreed a €1.8 trillion budgetary and stimulus package focused strongly on ecological and digital transformation.

What is the political significance of this shift? As the economist Jeffrey Sachs crisply expressed it in the Financial Times, ‘I would say the European Commission is carrying out a social democratic programme, not in name … but in spirit.’

Growing recognition of the climate crisis, reinforced at COP26, has combined with the outcome of the German elections in late September. Leaders of the putative ‘traffic-light’ coalition parties—the social-democratic SPD, the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats—have agreed to make major investments in Germany’s creaking infrastructure and to boost public spending for green and digital transition. They are coming under increasing pressure from German business too. In a major report published late last month, BDI, the German industry association, said the next government had to act quickly—triggering large-scale, low-carbon investments and setting the right framework to ensure the country would transform its economy to reach climate neutrality by 2045.

Joint borrowing

How can the coalition partners finance such ambitious plans, when they have already promised not to raise taxes or change Germany’s constitutionally-embedded ‘debt brake’ (Schuldenbremse), which severely limits new public debt? One proposal is to use the state bank, KfW, to finance investments. But more novel is a proposal for joint EU borrowing—via a European Commission bond programme, similar to that which the EU has launched for the recovery fund.

Keynesian road

The BDI director general, Joachim Lang, indicated the association was open to the idea of EU borrowing, to help fund the massive public and private investment necessary to meet German and European climate goals. ‘To meet its climate targets, Germany needs additional investment of €860 billion until 2030,’ Lang said.

The precise outcome of the negotiations on the German coalition programme remains uncertain. Recognition of the depth of the climate emergency is however driving industrialists and centrist politicians down a Keynesian road. The new government is likely to sidestep the debt brake by giving additional leeway to the KfW. But the more dramatic step would be to call for a new, EU-wide bond programme.

The size and shape of such a programme would of course be crucial issues for EU institutions to determine. But agreement on such a move would confirm that the European Green Deal was no one-off transaction—rather a first step towards Europe adopting Keynesian macroeconomic policies.

The return of social democracy

The tectonic plates are moving. The four decades hegemony of neoliberalism and the ‘Washington consensus’ are drawing to a close. As Sachs says, these moves herald a return to social democracy.

Three huge questions arise. First, will this shift be driven by social-democratic parties or, more likely, broader coalitions as in Germany?

Secondly, will the orthodox European right embrace the climate-change agenda

or will it lapse into the climate denialism of the nationalist right, as in the USA?

Thirdly, can the citizens’ and youth movements which have been so effective in foregrounding the environmental crisis find ways to intervene effectively in this battle? They will have to shed reflex, anti-politics populism and recognise the importance of maximising the potential of the European Green Deal.  COP26, for all its shortcomings, highlighted that politics is on the move. For progressives, there is all to play for.

Jon Bloomfield runs a regular blog series on the Green Deal with Professor Fred Steward

The full text of this article is available at Social Europe.

 How the climate crisis is changing Europe’s economic landscape – Jon Bloomfield (socialeurope.eu)

Dr. Jon Bloomfield. Honorary Research Fellow, Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham.

Policy Advisor on EU Climate Knowledge Innovation Community (KIC) programme; writes on cities, governance and migration as well as climate

Being Young in Local Government

Councillor Christopher Burden

Image: risingthermals https://www.flickr.com/photos/risingthermals/50047900938/in/album-72157714745761933/

According to the Local Government Association, the average age of a Councillor is 59, with only 15% of Councillors being under the age of 45. Nationally, 88% of Councillors identify as straight. Being a young gay councillor brings with it a dual status. Not only are you an elected official, but you also become an item of curiosity.

Six months ago, I never laboured over my identity. I was who I was and questioning this self-perception never crossed my mind. But upon election, I found the world questioning that status. Briefly, I ceased being “Chris Burden” and became a nameless entity. “The Youngest Councillor”. “The Gay Councillor”.  Concepts which were previously unspoken facets of my personality, were now my entire self. This change began while I was on the campaign trail.

Getting selected as a candidate was my first experience of the battleground of local politics. Independents don’t need to face this process, of course, but the vast majority of Councillors in the UK are party political except for notable exceptions in places like Stoke on Trent or Middlesbrough. It was here I encountered the first resistance about being young and in politics.

“Do you think that you possibly understand politics at your age?”

“Won’t you be too busy with University?”

“Will people actually vote for a person younger than them?”

To an extent they’re simple valid questions. Equally, they have simple and valid answers. Yes. No. Yes. There is a distinct Wulfrunian brashness in my response. Although this stems from a fundamental and irrevocable simplicity. Young people, just as any other community, deserve to be represented in their local areas.

Selections are a curious process in local government and effectively form the first experience of gatekeeping in the sector. Candidates aren’t necessarily rewarded or encouraged for their dedication, skill, or contribution, but rather their popularity or experience. This will vary from party to party, but the general trends are pervasive. These aren’t job interviews, in which the best candidate gets the job, but rather the candidate who is most able to convince the panels are the ones who succeed. Those who have lived long lives, or previously held positions are naturally endowed with the advantage.

This is the void where the sector must intervene to encourage youth participation and progression within political structures. Parties and councils more broadly must increase their programmes of support for those seeking election. The “Be a Councillor” programme from the LGA is an exceptionally good start, but is implemented with vast differences around the country, and does little to tailor exposure or training to poorly represented groups. As with many industries there exists a fundamental roadblock. Those who have the knowledge to look for this support, are broadly those who are less in need of the support. Professionally, I started my career in the classroom, teaching French and German. It’s here that we need to instil democratic values, but to also promote the value of local government and representation. Local government influences every facet of young people’s lives, from schools to youth centres, yet they aren’t taught to understand it as a political element. Is it any wonder that youth participation in local democracy is weak?

For those young people who do want to seek election, it’s an immensely rewarding field, providing a whole host of new and transferable skills. Even candidates who do not succeed in election learn an enormous amount about political communication and local government operations. I’ve been elected for five months and I’ve already been able to make an impact on the lives of ordinary people. High-level impact like adjusting the council home inappropriately adapted for a disabled resident, all the way down to low-level issues like supporting local charities to engage with social media. Local government is a field in which your impact can be immense, and everybody has something to give.

It hasn’t been an easy journey, and there’s challenges around every corner. But that’s exactly why we need more young people in politics. The West Midlands Growth Company estimates that 32% of the population in the West Midlands is under the age of 25, yet we could not say the same thing about our Council Chambers and Civic Centres. The lack of youth representation directly translates to a lack of understand of youth issues within politics, both locally and nationally.

Why do students find themselves at the mercy of rogue landlords?

Why is the night-time economy so poorly managed? Why are youth engagement services emaciated?

The answer is simple. When the service users are not represented in power, those making the decisions fail to recognise their impact. Young people have vital positions which they should be taking up within local government. They should be taking seats in council chambers up and down this country, and they must be supported in their ambitions to do so.

Chris Burden is the youngest councillor elected to City of Wolverhampton Council, and a University of Birmingham Alumnus. He is currently completing a PhD at Aston University, where his research concerns voting intention trends within the British and European young community.
@WulfrunianChris

Decarbonising Transport: How Can we Work Together to Make an Impact?

Dr Louise Reardon

With the COP26 climate change conference only days away, the media is awash with pieces on the challenge we face and the policy options available (or not) for us to meet our net-zero commitments. One of the areas needing significant attention is transport.

Transport contributed 28% of total domestic Green House Gas emissions in 2018, making it the UK’s largest emitting sector. To date the sector is proving a tough nut to crack, with transport emissions 4% higher now than they were in 2013 and only 3% lower than in 1990. To be on track we need an annual rate of emissions reduction of at least 6%. We therefore need bold and significant action.

While electric vehicles have been the primary focus of central government attention and are an important part of the policy mix, many experts have highlighted how they alone will not be enough to achieve the sustainable transition we need. We also require significant behaviour change (shifting from car use to walking and cycling for example) and less travel full stop.

Easier said than done. Our current CREDS research is identifying the multitude of different ways organisations are (and can) work together to decarbonise transport at the city level and their views on the barriers and opportunities for affecting change. Some of the issues arising are cultural (the car as a status symbol for example), some are institutional (lack of capacity to focus on decarbonisation, for instance), and others political (will the electorate support this?).

Whatever the issues, no two towns and cities will have the same mixture of challenges, solutions and therefore pathways to a more sustainable transport system. Moreover, the reasons why we travel in the first place (and the means of doing so) are a result of complex intersections of social, economic and political factors. To change this system therefore requires a multitude of coordinated interventions, including action from individuals and a diverse range of institutions all pushing in the same direction.

With that said, it can be hard to know where to start. While the climate change challenge is global, there is real opportunity and need to act locally on transport to make significant progress. While many rightly turn to their local authority for action, it is unrealistic to think they can act alone, especially when many of the changes we need to make may be potentially controversial (at least for some).

To help identify ways forward we will be hosting a webinar (on 11 November) as part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science. Two inspirational panellists – Karen Creavin (CEO, The Active Wellbeing Society) and Chris Todd (Director, Transport Action Network) – will join us. Both of whom, in their different ways, have sought to transform our transport system to a more sustainable and fair one and have plenty of insights to share.

The session will be interactive, aiming to get a real conversation going about the strategies we can employ to make sustainable transport a reality. It’s free to attend and we’d love to hear your views and insights. You can register here. Do join us!

Louise Reardon is Associate Professor of Governance and Public Policy at INLOGOV and currently leading the CREDS funded project Facilitating Policy Change towards Low-Carbon Mobility, in collaboration with INLOGOV Lecturer Timea Nochta and Li Wan, University of Cambridge. You can also follow Louise on Twitter @LouiseReardon1

How can we nurture urban transformation?

Dr. Catherine Durose

The complex, rapidly changing, increasingly precarious nature of cities has highlighted the limits of a traditional ‘top down’ master governance plan. How then can we shape and transform cities in order to address the challenges we face as a society, from sustainability to social cohesion?

Rather than attempting to discipline the urban governance environment, academics are increasingly trying to use different ways of thinking about the urban environment in order to work with its messiness, focusing on contingency, emergence and interaction. In our recent research, we have embraced this approach, but sought to develop it by also acknowledging the role of human agency in shaping and nurturing urban transformation.  Our work has given a sustained focus on how different people – those working on the front-line of public services, or in voluntary, community or social enterprise organisations, activists, and residents – can create change in urban neighbourhoods. Our new research places those working for change at the centre of debates on how cities transform.

We conducted a 30 month study in neighbourhoods in Amsterdam, Birmingham, Copenhagen and Glasgow. With local partners, we identified individuals who had a reputation for making a difference. We interviewed and observed them, and created spaces for them to come together to reflect on what they do, how they do it and why it matters. Our research discovered examples of how people made use of and nurtured four common resources:

  • Vision: a set of ideas to bring people together and offers a collective narrative for the future.
  • Relationships: ongoing engagement with a range of different people, often across cultural, economic or organisational boundaries.
  • Different ways of knowing: from professional knowledge to local.
  • Materials: from buildings to human bodies.

Living Lab in Birmingham

Examples included: how a mobile bakery in Amsterdam brought people together to take action, how historic buildings were re-purposed in Glasgow to offer a different future for the neighbourhood, how healthy lifestyle opportunities in Birmingham helped women from under-served communities realise their potential, and how resources were re-used and shared in Copenhagen to build a sustainable neighbourhood food economy. 

Seen together these examples begin to demonstrate a different way of thinking and showing how cities may be transformed:

First, how transformation may come from giving meaning to action and a pathway to a more liveable neighbourhood. 

Second, nurturing rather than extracting resources.

Third, engaging with people as community members to foster a sense of belonging and solidarity.

Finally, recognising and valuing different kinds of knowledge and harnessing them to respond creatively to social problems.

These practices did not begin with, focus upon, or end with those formal institutions that govern a city. Indeed, they often reflected institutional limits. Instead, they were guided by a belief in fostering power in communities towards a shared vision of a different future. 

The understanding of change expressed here, brings together a recognition of the role of people in catalysing urban transformation by bringing together different resources in a way that is purposeful, but also allows for a process of becoming that emerges over time. The work and resources we draw attention to here were often precarious, hidden, unvalued and yet hard to replace. Opportunities to experiment, to nurture, to fail, to reflect were all crucial, but we should acknowledge are also under severe pressure.

Our research brings together the history of different urban neighbourhoods, and their potential, and recognised the actual whilst considering the possible. We hope these insights contribute to ongoing learning and critical imagination in how we can approach the future of cities differently. Our article, ‘Working the urban assemblage: a transnational study of transforming practices’ by Catherine Durose, Mark van Ostaijen, Merlijn van Hulst, Oliver Escobar and Annika Agger has now been published in Urban Studies, and is available open access.

Catherine is Reader in Policy Sciences at INLOGOV, with a specific interest in urban governance and public policy.

Voter ID:  proceed with caution

Jason Lowther

There is much to welcome in the Government’s Elections Bill which completed its second reading last month and is being scrutinised by the Public Bill Committee over the next few weeks.  There has been widespread welcome to elements to clarify what’s meant by “undue influence” on voters, improve poll accessibility, prevent the intimidation of candidates and require all paid for digital political material to have an imprint.  But the measures to introduce voter ID need to be handled with care.

Under the Bill, voters will be required to show an approved form of photographic identification before collecting their ballot paper to vote at a polling station for UK parliamentary elections in Great Britain, at local elections in England, and at Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales. A broad range of documents will be accepted including passports, driving licences, various concessionary travel passes and photocard parking permits issued as part of the Blue Badge scheme. Any voter who does not have an approved form of identification will be able to apply for a free, local Voter Card from their local authority.

Chloe Smith, Cabinet Office Parliamentary Secretary, argued in 2019:

Electoral fraud is an unacceptable crime that strikes at a core principle of our democracy—that is, that everybody’s vote matters. There is undeniable potential for electoral fraud in our current system, and the perception of this undermines public confidence in our democracy. We need only to walk up to the polling station and say our name and address, which is an identity check from the 19th century, based on the assumption that everyone in the community knows each other and can dispute somebody’s identity…Showing ID is something that people of all backgrounds already do every day—when we take out a library book, claim benefits or pick up a parcel from the post office. Proving who we are before we make a decision of huge importance at the ballot box should be no different.

Whilst concern about voter fraud is generally low in the UK, Electoral Commission research in 2014 identified some local areas where there appears to be a greater risk of cases of alleged electoral fraud being reported.  Generally these areas were limited to individual wards within 16 local authority areas (out of just over 400 across the UK as a whole).  These areas were often characterised by being densely populated with a transient population, a high number of multiple occupancy houses and a previous history of allegations of electoral fraud. 

The Electoral Commission asked national and local organisations, including those representing people with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, to provide evidence of how the proposals for Photo ID affected the specific groups they represent.  The results showed significant concerns.  Charities representing people with learning disabilities, the BAME, LGBT+, gypsy and traveller communities and people without a fixed address raised general concerns that some of the people they represent are already less likely to register and vote, and they are also less likely to have ID.  Many of the responses highlighted existing difficulties their users face in accessing services requiring proof of identity, including barriers faced by people who don’t have easy access to the internet. 

Photographic voter ID has been used in Northern Ireland since 2003, and at the May 2019 local elections, ten local authority areas in England agreed to run pilots.  Interestingly, three of the ten pilot areas were in the Electoral Commission’s list of higher risk local authority areas referred to above.  There were different arrangement according to three models: In two areas, people had to show a specified form of photo ID.  In five areas, they could choose to show either a specified form of photo ID or two pieces of specified non-photo ID.  And in three areas people could show either their poll card or a specified form of photo ID.  The mixed ID model and the photo ID model both had a provision for free, locally issued ID available from the local authority, if electors did not have the required form of ID.

The Cabinet Office’s internal evaluation of the pilot declared the 2019 pilot “another success”.  The evaluation aimed to assess the pilots against measures of integrity (perceptions of the voting process, and of electoral fraud), democracy & equality (awareness, voting behaviour), delivery (planning and resource implications), and cost.  Some may feel that generalisability of the conclusions are limited by the range of local authorities volunteering to be involved not being representative of the country as a whole (table 1). 

Table 1: 2019 pilot authorities

Source: Cabinet Office evaluation report, p.7

The Cabinet Office concluded that the photographic ID model had the most pronounced impact on the measures of integrity, with a significant increase in voter perceptions that there are sufficient safeguards in place to prevent electoral fraud at polling stations (differences in the mixed ID model were not significant). The proportion of people who did not return to the polling station varied by model, but the evaluation argues that across all models this accounted for under 0.5% of those who were checked at polling stations, the report notes ‘there are some indications that the mixed ID model was accessible for electors, particularly in more demographically diverse areas’. 

As always, the devil is in the detail.  Looking at the detailed results, the proportion not returning is at least twice as high in the mixed and photo ID samples (up to 0.7% of electors in two councils).  And when you look at individual wards, those with the highest percentage of non returners were often those with relatively high BME populations.  As LGIU pointed out in its analysis of the pilots: ‘Voter ID is not a priority for voters, who are more concerned about low voter turnout, bias in the media, and inadequate regulation of political activity on social media. Only one in four respondents to a post poll survey (24%) said electoral fraud was somewhat of or a serious problem, with more (26%) stating it isn’t a problem’.

The Electoral Commission’s overall conclusion on the pilots was ‘we are not able to draw definitive conclusions, from these pilots, about how an ID requirement would work in practice, particularly at a national poll with higher levels of turnout or in areas with different socio-demographic profiles not fully represented in the pilot scheme.’

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has also considered voter ID, and published its final report in September 2021. It called on the Government to produce clear research setting out whether mandatory ID at the polling station could create barriers to taking part in elections for some groups and how they plan to mitigate this risk effectively.

As outlined in the excellent report on the issue by Neil Johnston and Elise Uberoi of the House of Commons Library, experience in Canada (who introduced voter ID in 2008) showed that ‘a significant minority of voters in Canada struggled to prove their residence address as they lack documents that prove the address used to register to vote’.

Voter ID, of course, is one of a range of measures which Government could take to change election arrangements.  The Missing Millions report made 25 recommendations to enable increased participation, such as encouraging recipients of National Insurance number notification letters to register online, and Government funding and support for a National Voter Registration Drive.  Most polling clerks experience having to turn away electors because their names are not on the electoral roll in the first place, arguably this is a much greater threat to our democracy than the fears of false identities which voter ID seeks to address.

The Government has not yet shown how voter ID will operate in England without adversely affecting certain minority and disadvantaged groups.  Until issues such as costs and access are fully addressed, it needs to proceed with caution.