Is our electoral system going through the biggest change in a generation?

By Steven McGinty

The biggest change in a generation? Quite simply: yes.

Last year, we saw an unprecedented focus on the democratic process, with high profile votes such as the Scottish independence referendum, as well as revolution in the way in which citizens vote through the introduction of the Individual Electoral Registration (IER). It’s likely that this degree of interest in the political system will continue as we move towards the general election in May, with a number of related topics being up for debate.

I’ve therefore decided to highlight some of the most notable election and referendum-related issues, as well as look at which might come up in the general election campaign.

Individual Electoral Registration

The introduction of IER in June 2014 was a major step in the delivery of digital government services. It was implemented to provide a more modern service and to help combat electoral fraud. The IER system is essentially a hub that was built by the Government Digital Service. The hub links up with the Electoral Management Software (EMS) in each local electoral area. There is no central database of voter details and the data has been received and saved locally, and is deleted from the Hub within 48 hours.

Yet although these changes have been introduced to improve the system, Dr Toby James, Senior Lecturer in British and Comparative Politics, suggests that they could have the opposite effect, and lead to reduced levels of voter registration.

Political engagement

The Scottish independence referendum was described by some as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, which would have permanently changed the political landscape of Scotland. The plebiscite saw 84.6% of the population voting, the highest turnout a nationwide election has had since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1918. The election also gave 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote, which resulted in 109,533 young people signing up before polling day.

It will be interesting to see if this high level of political engagement and the lowering of the voting age will be reflected across the UK in the future. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has already accepted proposals by Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to lower the voting age in Holyrood elections permanently; although a House of Lords committee has raised concerns over these plans.

European referendum

The referendum on Europe could potentially be the big issue of this year’s general election. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Conservative Party have promised to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union if in government. However, the Labour party, at the moment, are against the idea of a European referendum.

Due to the fragmented political environment, it is quite possible that there will be another coalition government. In this scenario, parties will negotiate and smaller coalition partners may change their stance. At this stage, other parities including the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Green Party and the SNP may also have an impact.

The latest polls are too close to call: with Ipsos MORI showing the Labour Party leading the Conservative Party by 1 point and YouGov showing the Conservative Party leading the Labour Party by 2 points. If the Labour Party win, it’s unlikely that there would be a referendum on Europe; however if the Conservative Party win, it’s likely that there will be.

Boundary changes

Boundary changes, although not as high profile as the debate on Europe, could also figure in the next parliament. In 2013, a Conservative backed plan to reduce the number of constituencies was rejected by their coalition partners and the opposition parties.  However, there are currently a number of electoral reviews being carried out by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. For example, North Dorset Council will make changes to their boundaries that will come into force at the local elections in 2015.

Devolution

Greater devolution within England is also expected to be a major general election issue.  Although directly elected mayors have been part of the political landscape since the early 2000’s, not many cities have chosen to introduce them due to low voter turnout. However, in November 2014, the chancellor, George Osborne announced that Greater Manchester would have a directly elected Mayor, who would have a host of new powers for the region. This increase in powers, alongside a greater desire for more local decision making, may lead to a higher voter turnout than has previously been seen. It will be interesting to see if this triggers demands for mayors from other regions.

Police and Crime Commissioners

The spotlight will also be on the role of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC). Similar to the mayoral elections, turnout has been very low for PCCs elections, with the average turnout approximately 14.7%. If the Conservative Party wins the general election, it is likely that PCC elections will continue across England and Wales, despite their low turnout. Conversely, if Labour wins the election, it is likely that they will scrap PCCs, arguing that the Conservatives have wasted millions of pounds on PCC elections.

Whatever the result of the UK election, 2015 looks like being another big year for all aspects of elections management and voting.


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Further Reading:

Putting the “Smarts” into Smart Cities

Liverpool Albert Dock

by Rebecca Riley

Last week I attended a workshop organised by Red Ninja Studios, bringing together a wide range of place based organisations, to explore what a technologically integrated future for Liverpool would look like. We spent the day exploring the three main domains of economy, health and transport, what the issues were in the city, what data was available and what innovative ideas we had to solve the issues through technology.

The discussion was interesting and lively but throughout the sessions I kept coming back to ‘why?’. Technology seemed to be the answer but what was the question, what were we trying to achieve?

Smart Cities is the latest policy buzzword – our briefing earlier in the week highlighted the wealth of research and development which is going on in this area and how great leaps in technology are changing the way we live and work in cities. The danger with looking at developing Smart Cities is that the opportunities and options are boundless, and this came through in the workshop. Smart travel systems, integrated health care, environmental measurement, technology development, graduate retention, high quality jobs, access to learning –  all could be tackled through integrated next generation technology. So how do we prioritise and get the highest impact we can in a city such as Liverpool?

One of the participants asked “what connects all these ideas, what integrates them?” the simple answer is people, not technology.

So on returning to my desk (or rather my kitchen as I am one of the nation’s 4.2m home workers) I started to think about what ‘people’ would want from a technology driven environment, rather than what the technology will deliver to the people.

A guide on service design in smart cities highlights that we have to start with the ‘business proposition’; people have to be willing to ‘buy’ the service on offer. It highlights two reasons for improvement:

Improving customer service

  • Increasing the take up of services among key groups to achieve targets
  • Making it easier to access services
  • Giving a better service
  • Giving a service targeted to individual needs
  • Giving access to a broader range of services

Improving efficiency

  • Increasing take up among key groups to increase income
  • Increasing early take up and reducing more expensive interventions later
  • Improving processes to streamline services and reduce costs
  • Switching customers to more cost efficient channels

These business imperatives should be at the heart of any technology implementation and technology can impact across all these goals but, form should follow function.

When people were asked by Steer Davies Gleave what words describe a ‘Smart’ city their response was surprising. Although there were a wide range of answers (reflecting the diversity of the term), ‘clean’ and ‘technology’ came out top, followed by ‘transport’, ‘friendly’, ‘connect’, ‘internet’ and ‘eco’. Overall people said smart cities should aim to be ‘a pleasant place to live, work and socialise’ with a ‘healthy, vibrant economy’, and sustainability was at the bottom of the list. When answers were normalised for population, Oxford, York, Bath and Cambridge were seen as the most ‘smart’ cities – all areas with higher ‘smart’ populations as well as ‘nice’ places to live. The priorities for making cities smarter were seen as availability of facilities and services (shops, places to eat and drink, sports and entertainment), modern public transport and safe, secure travel. People want good quality of life experiences.

Future Everything presented a series of essays aimed at shifting the debate on future cities towards the central place of citizens and open urban infrastructures. The essays focus on how cities can create the policies, structures and tools to engender a more innovative and participatory society. Dan Hill discusses the idea that “smart citizens make smart cities” and a city cannot be ‘managed’– it’s a living organic response to people’s lives, where people are often invisible in the management of transport or infrastructure systems. As Hill says, smart cities do not exist, but smart citizens do. The city is its people and technology should enable people to come together.

Can we harness the power of the citizen as an ‘organic sensor’ to improve services, drawing them in to actively engage with improving society? Can a ‘smart city’ be one where active, participatory, citizenship becomes central to the development of infrastructure? If a cities’ smart citizens applied their Instagram, TripAdvisor and Twitter engagement to the transport network or the health centre they use would it drive more responsive services? The answer is yes, but only if those services are listening or care. How can technology help citizens reclaim their space; would we all share information if it improves our quality of life?

The challenge for technology is to respond to the smart citizen, the millennials and generation Alpha will have very different demands, ones we cannot conceive of now. The challenge for government and large technology firms is not to emphasise top-down solutions but to respond to the issues, aspirations and abilities of individuals and make personal and civic responsibility core to a Smart City Vision.


Further reading

Smart cities – the who’s, what’s, where’s?

Accenture Survey 2013: What Travellers Want from Public Transport Providers

Smart Cities and Smart Citizens

Understanding Smart Cities: An integrative Framework

Smart Citizens

The Smart City Market: Opportunities for the UK