The emerging post Covid–19 social contract needs to have civic and democratic participation at its heart.

However, to participate fully in shaping their future, citizens and residents need access to relevant knowledge and opportunities, need to trust the system and feel heard. Central government and local authorities play a critical role in enabling individuals to actively participate in their communities and their localities, in decisions that affect them, their families and their future. But evidence suggests that when particular social groups do not participate, their interests are not reflected in the decisions that affect their lives.

This is particularly true for one of the greatest cities in the world – London -  which has one of the lowest voter registration rates across the UK regions and nations. Even before the pandemic, voter registration rates were a key indicator of social integration, identity and belonging.  With many of the most under-registered and under-represented Londoners  - young people, aged 16–24; Black, Asian, minority ethnic [BAME] and migrant Londoners, including Commonwealth and EU Londoners; social and private renters - disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, focus on access to full participation must become a prime concern.

Civic and democratic participation in action, during the pandemic

Civic engagement was already a priority for London City Hall, but in order to address the democratic inequality exacerbated by the pandemic, the GLA renewed its commitment to coordinate and collaborate on London Voter Registration Week (LVRW) in 2020. Now in its second edition, this unique non–party political democratic participation partnership between a regional authority, statutory bodies and civil society saw activity take place on social media and in networks across London between 14 and 20 September.

 

LVRW 2020 sent a strong message that democracy should not be put on hold during the pandemic. Despite the unprecedented circumstances and pressures on capacity, it launched with the support of over 100 civil society organisations (including education and youth institutions; (inter)faith, disabled and LGBTQ+-led organisations; ethnic minority and migrant groups; social housing associations). During the week another 100 organisations and influencers shared their support.

In partnership with Shout Out UK and the London Voter Registration Strategic Partnership, made up of representatives from statutory bodies and civil society, LVRW 2020 saw 27,120 people registered to vote, across London - a 14% increase from the week before, while UK-wide there was a 5% drop.

We knew that one in three young Londoners was not registered and that young people, especially from BAME and migrant communities, were and will continue to be disproportionately affected by the effects of Covid-19. Hence, the uptick in registration rates among this group was particularly encouraging - 5,920 young people registered, a 23% increase from the previous week, while UK-wide there was a 6% drop.

We need to invest in democracy because existing threats - low trust in politics and the democratic system, divisions caused by the EU referendum, uncertainty around the end of the Brexit transition period, the economic downturn - have all been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Together we helped between 925,000 and 1,2 million Londoners gain access to digital and education resources - graphics, materials in community languages, the #NoVoteNoVoice video, the GLA Political Literacy resources and animations on the “History of voting rights'' and “Who and how to register”. The resources were co-designed and co-delivered with under-registered and under-represented Londoners, which I hope will become the norm, especially as, during the co-production process and the evaluation, some BAME and migrant Londoners admitted to feeling seen and heard for the first time in relation to their civic and democratic rights.

Civic engagement and media and political literacy

While I would love for the LVRW model - this impartial, non-election specific civic engagement partnership I’ve conceived and coordinated - to be emulated in other parts of the UK, I appreciate it will not be enough in itself. Local authorities, civil society, education institutions and tech companies need to come together, build resilience and ensure that civic engagement and media and political literacy go hand-in-hand. Embedding political literacy in the curriculum and passing a meaningful Online Harms Bill would be a good start.

This matters because threats of suspended elections and the rise in conspiracy theories could exacerbate current levels of apathy and disenfranchisement. We know from the work of antiracist organisations like HOPE not hate and from research carried out around the spread of misinformation during the lockdown and its effects, that when that happens family and community relations come under pressure and some individuals resort to extreme avenues to express their anger, lack of control and power.

But there remains a lack of clarity around civil society organisations having adequate agency or funding to fully participate or support their beneficiaries to do so.

We need to invest in democracy because existing threats - low trust in politics and the democratic system, divisions caused by the EU referendum, uncertainty around the end of the Brexit transition period, the economic downturn - have all been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Further democratic reform to support the journey to full participation

It is encouraging to see that Danny Kruger MP’s report “Levelling up our communities: proposals for a new social covenant” stresses the need for civic and democratic participation to be at the heart of the emerging social contract. But there remains a lack of clarity around civil society organisations having adequate agency or funding to fully participate or support their beneficiaries to do so.

The calls for democratic reform, informed by the lessons learned from the pandemic and exacerbated inequalities, do not stop here. Moving forward we need to: 

-     Accelerate the transition to automatic and automated voter registration to safeguard democracy during a public health crisis and to address incomplete and under-representative electoral rolls - a proposal that has cross-party support in the Lords;

-     Review measures such as the introduction of mandatory photo voter IDs that statutory bodies and civil society agree could further disenfranchise already under-represented communities;

-     Support a thriving civil society through meaningful devolution of powers and responsibilities, addressing the gagging effects of Charity and Electoral Law, and fostering effective collaboration and coordination between central, regional and local government and the sector.

I look forward to working with colleagues in local authorities, statutory bodies and civil society to ensure every voice gets heard and that we have more equal, inclusive, resilient communities and democracy.

This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.

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Dr. Elisabeth Pop has authored this piece in an independent capacity, drawing on years of experience as one of UK’s non-party political democratic engagement experts, leading some of the biggest civil society coalitions on voter registration and democratic reform. She is Democratic Engagement Officer at HOPE not hate, currently on secondment at the Greater London Authority, part of the Citizenship and Integration Initiative, acting as Lead Officer on Democratic Participation.