19 SEPTEMBER 1992, Page 8


Mystery of the missing Labour voters


Sunday is the day of the week when Britons are in a better position than anyone else on earth to decide that world events are what we choose them to be. With a greater variety of national newspapers than any other country, we may well conclude that history is a meaningless concept when measured beside contemporaries' differing perceptions of world events as they unfold. This Sunday, while many of the popular papers continued to wrestle with different aspects of the main news, about the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of York, the Sunday Telegraph chose to give greatest prominence to the discovery of new clues to the Birmingham bombing out- break of 16 years ago; the Mail on Sunday to the view that David Mellor would stay as Minister of Fun; the Sunday Times to the claim that unnamed 'senior Tories' agreed with Mr Murdoch's proposal that junior members of the royal family should he removed from the Civil List; the Observer to the suggestion that serious charges of child sexual abuse may soon he made against police in north Wales. Only the Independent on Sunday thought it worth while to point out that an estimated 1.8 million Britons had 'disappeared' since 1980.

When one thinks of the excitement over the 10 or 20,000 Argentinians said to have disappeared in the days of the junta, it seems rather remiss not to enquire after the missing 1.8 million, who compose more than 3 per cent of the population. It was the Office of Population Censuses and Sur- veys which noticed them missing when it came to count the returns of last year's cen- sus. Local authorities, according to Rosie Waterhouse who wrote the Independent on Sunday's lead story on Britain's despareci- dos, are certain that many of these missing people deliberately avoided filling in the 1981 census form because they did not wish to pay poll tax. So now they have disap- peared entirely from public records.

When one adds to the number of those who refused to fill in their census forms the number of those who filled them in consci- entiously enough, only to find that nobody could be bothered to collect them, then it is a wonder that the census revealed anybody living in the British Isles at all. But then one must also consider those who, by virtue of owning two or more homes in the British Isles, were required to fill in two census forms and therefore appear as a double entry in the national records. This is my plight, but it does not worry me unduly to represent two digits in the population fig- ures since I also have two votes — one in London, one in Somerset — and pay two poll taxes.

It would be surprising if census figures were ever accurate to within less than 2 or 3 per cent, of course, but Rosie Waterhouse takes a very dim view of our 1.8 million dis- parus: 'The implications are serious,' she writes. 'These "lost" people, many of them thought to be needy, are unable to claim benefit.'

This may be true, although her next point — that local authorities, finding they must provide services for non-existent people, are likely to be plunged into deeper confu- sion — would seem to contradict it. Whether it is true or not, I fail to see why it should be a matter of any concern to Waterhouse. If it is indeed the case that only those who are on the electoral register can claim benefit, then people must decide for themselves whether they would prefer to have a vote and social security benefits and pay poll tax, or do without all three. It is nothing to do with Waterhouse. Then we come to her next anxiety: 'And, most con- troversially, the argument is strengthened that the poll tax drove poorer voters off the register in marginal constituencies and helped the Conservative Party to win the last election.'

Perhaps this is the crux of the Water- house problem. In case we have missed the point, she makes it again: 'They are thought to include a high proportion of poor, young people, single mothers and immigrants. Many are likely to he Labour voters.'

The thought that 1.8 million Labour vot- ers abstained at the last election might well cause frustration among Labour support- ers, and might even persuade them to invent cock-and-hull stories about social benefits being dependent on census returns, but to me the whole thing seems a splendid illustration of how liberal democ- racy can he made to work.

Poll tax had its disadvantages, among

'He's very confused. He's a money spider.' them that it was electorally unviable. Everybody in the country could see that except for Mrs Thatcher, who by that stage had surrounded herself with a court of sycophants who assured her to the con- trary. Another was that it was virtually uncollectable. But despite these disadvan- tages, it was quite easily the fairest tax ever introduced. Everybody paid the same. Nothing could be fairer than that. Those who wished to pay less could vote for whichever party promised lower tax, lower benefits. That is what is meant by demo- cratic choice. The idea that taxation is pri- marily redistributive has no basis in either liberalism or democracy. However, since the redistributive element is what sustains local government in its orgies of spending, it was inevitable that the rate would be set higher than many would-be tax-payers could conveniently afford. A few simply did not have the money, after paying for life's essentials, or so we are piously asked to believe.

Those who either could not afford the new tax, or were unprepared to pay it for some other reason, were thus left with a choice of two courses of action. They could either die, as being unfit citizens for a liber- al democracy, or they could become nu!" laws, take to the woods and live in rabbit holes or simply neglect to fill in their cen- sus returns and their electoral registration forms, drifting into a sort of non-person existence which denies them many of the benefits, privileges and obligations of the semi-marxist redistributive nanny state.

If 1.8 million of our fellow citizens have taken this option, as Rosie Waterhouse assures us, then it is surely a matter for general rejoicing.

We need not mourn poll tax, which was always a non-starter, to admire its monu-. ment of 1.8 million potential Labour voters removed not only from the voting register for ten years but also from any parasitic involvement with the welfare state. Of course it is all hysterical nonsense. You don't have to be on a census form to be on an electoral register, and you don't have to be on either to receive the full range of welfare benefits. But there is noth- ing to lose by assuring all those needy youngsters, single mothers and immigrants_ that the poll tax is still after them. Of course, I will look silly if they suddenly start discovering mass graves in places like Finchley and Basildon.