Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Johann Hari, Tony Blair and Me.

Making A Good Idea, A Better Idea

A fine article from Johann Hari in the Independent points out that Tony Blair's proposals to make it easier for Government Departments to share information about us, is not a major attack on our civil liberties. It will help many in need to receive their proper rights and to provide them with assistance. It will also help to stop many wealthier people from slipping out of paying their share towards the well-being of others.

There is another area where the cross fertilisation of such information is urgently needed. It is something we should press Blair to add to this agenda as it will clearly extend civil liberties.

Some 3.5 million eligable people are missing off electoral registers in England and Wales alone. This has arisen because we have an increasingly rootless and complex society. We need arrangements which ensure that we get as close as possible to 100% electoral registration. So that we then have access to the vote wherever we are settled, temporarily or otherwise. Whether we use that right is another matter, but it should not be denied to so many.

We Have Been Here Before

I once I introduced a Private Members Bill into the Commons which attempted to achieve the objective I have outlined above. Furthermore (as I will show below) I did this with active support from Blair.

At the time he was Shadow Home Secretary and he circulated the following letter of 1 February 1993 to Labour MPs to encourage them to participate in a free vote on my Bill on a Friday.

The context of the letter is that I needed 100 MPs in my lobby to force a closure to the debate.

Dear Colleague,

The second reading of the private members bill from Harry Barnes MP on improvements to the process of electoral registration is scheduled for debate on Friday 12th. It is vital that there is a maximum turnout of Labour MPs for this debate as there is likely to be a sustained boycott by Tory MPs.

The Labour Party has been strongly indentified with the need to improve the extent and accuracy of electoral registers and we have put considerable pressure on the Home Office and individual local authorities to give a greater priority to this work. It would be very unfortunate if the Government could accuse Labour MPs of a lack of commitment and awareness on this issue, particularly when it cost the Party so dearly in the General Election.

I would be grateful if you would do your utmost to be present for this vital debate.

Yours sincerely.
Tony Blair.

Ayes 78 Noes 0 - The Noes Win

Despite winning the vote for the closure of the Bill by 78-0, we did not reach the magic total of 100 and the measure had been talked out. Most of the Labour Front Bench , including our leader John Smith voted. But too few Labour Back Bench MPs bothered to turn up.

When Blair became Prime Minister, legislation was eventually carried in 2000 which incorporated some rather weak versions of my proposals into what is known as Rolling Electoral Registration. Which means that a persons voting rights can follow them when they move. The problem is that they need to be alert and pro-active to cash in on the proposal.

In Politics, It is Never Too Late

But we now clearly have access to information which would allow officialdom to do what I was campaigning for throughout the bulk of my parliamentary career.

If Tony Blair will add this item to his current proposals, then he will be taking a lead on a clear civil rights issue which he has been associated with in the past - as his above letter shows.

What could be more fundamental than the right to vote? It would put him in the tradition of the Levellers, the Chartists, and the Suffragettes! What more is needed for a place in history ? It is never too late to deliver in politics.

And if he doesn't find it too embarrasing, he can give me a footnote.


Bob Piper said...

Harry, the Levellers, the Chartists, and the Suffragettes will be spinning in their graves at that comparison.

Harry Barnes said...


It is Blair that I am trying to send spinning before he moves into his political grave.