Do our troops mark the 'X'?

In June 2008 the launch issue of Total Politics magazine carried a feature article by Ben Duckworth about electoral participation by armed forces personnel.

BAFF and the Service Voting Campaign got several mentions.

Do our troops mark the 'X'?

by Ben Duckworth, Total Politics magazine

The armed forces have a unique role in the British electorate. Given the same right to vote as the public, they are kept largely out of elections because of the risk of playing party politics yet they should be among the most motivated of our electorate. After all, how many other people would leave the comfort of normal daily and family life to give the ultimate sacrifice for their country?

There have been four Acts of Parliament in the 20th century that have changed the status of service voters and the methods they may use to cast their ballot. It was the furore over the late or non-arrival of registration information and postal ballots plus falling registration numbers for armed forces voters in the 2005 general election that put the media’s spotlight on the issue. This led to provisions in the 2006 Electoral Administration Act which extended the registration period from twelve months to three years. Since then, it has again slipped from the media’s radar but many of the issues remain.

The controversy around the armed forces voting in the 2005 general election began when Andrew Tyrie, Conservative MP for Chichester, who noticed low numbers of service registrations in 2003: “In most places it is very difficult to spot changes in registration numbers”, he says, “but it was a distinct constituency where I could see a dramatic fall in registration. The number of registered voters had halved”.

As the countdown to the 2005 general election began, it became clear that there were problems emerging for armed forces voting. On the 15 April 2005, less than a month before polling day, the Daily Telegraph reported: “up to 80% of military personnel would be unable to vote” because leaflets on how to register were sent too late for service personnel stationed overseas to vote and army websites were displaying out-of-date information.

Douglas Young, of the British Armed Forces Federation (BAFF) says: “The run-up to the 2005 general election was an utter farce. There’s still anger about it”. His report ‘Silence in the Ranks’ detailed the problems faced by members of the armed forces including legislative changes in 2000, website information and postal voting problems.

Andrew Robathan MP for Blaby criticised the government for being dismissive: “I firmly believe the government didn’t want people in the armed forces voting because of the large numbers who wouldn’t vote Labour. The government dragged its heels deliberately”, he says.

The controversy over registration for service personnel arose from the Representation of the People Act 2000. This ended the requirement for all HM Forces personnel to register as service voters. It allowed for postal voting on demand and ended the 82-year-old system for troops stationed overseas to vote by proxy for the entirety of their army life. Now, service voters had to register each year.

Nina Ziaullah, head of campaigns and public information at the Electoral Commission defends the change: “In practice it often meant the details were very out of date so the law changed in 2000 and the number of voters who registered specifically as service voters dropped significantly”.

It is certainly true that the number of registered service voters dropped dramatically. An Office of National Statistics (ONS) report released in February 2008 showed that the number of people registered as service voters dropped from 139,686 to an astonishing 19,216 in 2007.

The 2006 Electoral Registration Act was introduced by Harriet Harman in her then role as Constitutional Affairs Minister. “To her credit she focused on it,” says Tyrie. The current system gets cautious praise, despite the fact the government extended the registration period to three years, which is still less than the maximum five years. Douglas Young says: “I don’t want to sound complacent but the campaign was successful, as the Electoral Commission recognised it, once people a) accepted the problem and b) the problem mattered”.

Kevan Jones, Labour MP for North Durham, sits on the defence select committee, claims new base developments will make it simpler for personnel to remain on the register. He says: “It should be easier with the super-garrisons meaning people will be in one area for longer and are not moving around the country so much”. Of those bases expanding, Catterick Garrison will house 25,000 troops by 2020 while RAF Cosford in Shrophire will receive a large contingent of previously Rhine stationed troops by 2014.

Figures were not available to show service voter turnout in the May local election, but Nina Ziaullah defends the Electoral Commission’s work in promoting the issue to forces personnel.

She says: “With the local elections, we send information out to barracks and try and do the work in the autumn because that helps people get on the register so they’re not trying to do it at the last minute. Again, if you lose the form and there’s delay in getting it back then you don’t miss out.”

The late Lord Garden, the Lib Dem peer, who was prominent in the discussions over the 2006 Act believed that proxy voting was “not democratic”. In a House of Lords debate in February 2006 he said: “We have a duty to make it possible for all service people to cast a secret personal vote. That means that the Ministry of Defence will have to provide the necessary logistics”.

Ziuallah also believes proxy voting can be unpopular amongst troops: “It’s probably one of those natural instincts. People like the idea of their vote being private so are therefore a bit less keen”.

However, others believe the pre-2000 proxy system was superior and should be returned to. Tyrie believes “there was no problem with the old system” and adds: “It needs to be accompanied by two things: de-register when you leave service and second, individual voting registration”. One senior MP with a keen interest in military matters was blunter: “Bureaucrats at the Commission seem incapable of understanding this. [Forces personnel] have got to make the effort with this vote, a proxy vote requires no effort”.

Another unresolved issue is the narrow window in general elections between ending Parliament and the polling day, this is particularly true for troops stationed thousands of miles from Britain. Ziaullah explains: “You can’t issue postal ballots until the close of nominations, which for a Parliamentary election is 17 working days so it isn’t long at all. It is an issue with a compressed timetable”.

Douglas Young has researched the provisions other countries make for overseas personnel in national elections. He says: “Lots of countries have longer electoral timetables but Australia accepts armed forces votes coming in late. The US has the same problem, they’ve got a parallel vote system. If you haven’t received it you can download a form and send it”.

Kevan Jones agrees the priority must be organising for service personnel to be given the chance to vote. He says: “It’s very important our armed forces get a say. It’s very important now the average servicemen and women get a direct voice to us. Voting is one aspect of that”.

Elections are not the only time that forces personnel come into contact with politicians. Aside from MPs, hundreds of councilors around the country have barracks, garrisons, RAF bases and ports in their wards. Cllr Peter Handley’s ward of Carterton North-West includes the biggest RAF base in the country, Brize Norton. He sees the value in the large population: “Without the RAF here we would die, as was shown in the floods last year when they came out to help pump the water from the town”. However he struggles to gain close links with the base chiefs, he says: “The Base Commander changes every 2 years, so you’re just developing a working relationship with them and they change.”

Despite the separate identity of the armed forces, they are not immune from trends in the wider country. The view that low service voting patterns would be similar to the disengagement with politics felt by younger generations throughout Britain is one shared by Jones. He says: “You can’t separate it from the population. Young lads just don’t often vote. We should make politics relevant and shouldn’t put obstacles in the way of serviceman and women voting”.

Young also believes it can be difficult to whip up enthusiasm for local elections. “People in armed forces are probably slightly less affected by local government than people in wider communities”, he adds, “They’re not affected by local spending decisions in quite the same way”. Young soldiers just joining up don’t get the same level of information as other barracks because the Electoral Commission lacks a presence in training centre although Ziaullah claims it’s an aspiration: “We want to do more work with training establishments, because obviously it’s one of those things when you join the armed forces and go on your first tour abroad you’re filling in lots of different paperwork, and we want electoral registration to become part of that”.

Of course, it’s not just the troops themselves who are affected by the transient nature of the job. Their families pack up their belongings and follow them around the UK too. As Councillor Handley notes, at Brize Norton “800 families within 2-3 months have to find [places] amongst existing schools”. The Electoral Commission works with HIVES (Help, Information, Volunteer Exchange), a support network for army families and say they have publicised in family newsletters and information centres.

There are still 4,000 British troops stationed in Iraq and 7,800 in Afghanistan with around 39,400 posted overseas in total. The total full time strength of the British armed forces is just under 192,000, and of those only a small number will be under the voting age of 18 (in 2007, the latest available figures, only 4,650 paid British troops were under 18). It is a significant electoral grouping. It is also one that is as Andrew Robathan describes: “highly unusual”. Douglas Young believes: “It’s a very good thing if political parties realise armed forces voters use their vote – they’re not just voting on family tradition, they examine policies carefully”. Kevan Jones has introduced a Private Members Bill calling for the BAFF to be officially recognised and wants more interaction between politicians and troops. “I don’t think the average MP often meets someone serving in the armed forces and that should be changed,” he says.

 

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