Is there ever an alternative?

The beginning of May is traditionally voting time in Britain (so much more conducive to higher turnout rates than harsh Novembers across the Atlantic) and tomorrow sees us trooping to the polls for quite a historic occasion. For only the second time in British history, the entire nation will participate in a referendum.

The last one – in 1975, so not even in my lifetime – was to decide whether we should remain in the EEC (we did), tomorrow’s is on the issue of electoral reform. Specifically, whether we should replace the current First Past The Post (FPTP) system with Alternative Vote (AV). Sadly, there seems to have been little real debate on the issue, largely thanks (I suspect) to the small wedding that took place last week.

I am no political commentator and I know plenty of people reading this won’t even be eligible to vote tomorrow, but I felt a need to come out and make a few points. Yes, I’m pro-change, but even if you disagree with me, it’s worth exploring the issue…

1. This is a highly unusual event – we haven’t had one of these in over 35 years! Whatever your views, get yourself down to your polling station tomorrow and exercise your right to vote. If there’s a low turnout tomorrow, whatever the result is won’t actually be the views of the country and the whole exercise will have been pointless.

2. This should have nothing to do with your party-politics, it’s to do with what is the fairest way of making exceedingly important decisions. Yes, the majority of seats in the current parliament would have had the same result under AV, but what about the minority that wouldn’t have? Also, don’t vote No just because you’re annoyed at Clegg for jumping into bed with the Tories.

3. No, AV isn’t proportional representation (PR) – but it is the first step in a journey that could lead to it. If ‘No’ wins tomorrow, we may have a very, very long wait until electoral reform appears on the political agenda. (The last time it did was in 1928 – you do the maths…)

4. If you’re utterly clueless about what either of these systems involve, then get informed. We had an educational session at work today involving colleagues’ children and their cuteness factor – I’m sure some people found it exceedingly helpful. There are lots of articles out there that are useful, my occasionally informative friend Andy wrote a good one on AV that’s well worth a read (someone who read it on my recommendation was surprised how interesting they found it despite its length – now there’s praise). There are plenty of videos too, like the one below, which even uses animals to help make it super simple.

If that’s too much for you, how about this:

Near disenfranchisement owing to fire

Thursday’s trip to the gym was already proving blog-worthy, thanks to the conversation I walked in on as I entered the studio:
“…it’s good. You know how Original Mint Source shower gel feels? Well, it’s even better than that…”
I have no idea what the two men were talking about, but I’d love to know what manages to surpass the tingly feeling that particular brand of shower gel induces!

Twenty minutes into my bike ride, with my iPod turned up loud to drown out the studio music, a trainer tapped on my shoulder and pointed out that the fire alarm had been sounding for some time and I needed to get out. We traipsed out of the gym and up the steps to the streets as instructed, passing through a cloud of smoke as we did so. This was no false alarm, there was an actual fire.

Dozens of us were left standing on the pavement, clutching only what we’d taken into the studio. In my case this was my gym kit (vest top and cropped joggers), iPod and book. Everything else, including my towel, phone, keys, oyster card & purse was locked inside a locker in the changing rooms. Needless to say, during an arctic first week of May I was rather chilly – chilly and embarrassed in fact. My gym’s rather centrally located, so our evacuation point was opposite both a major train station and one of London’s top tourist attractions. I don’t plan my gym outfit for its attractiveness, it’s solely practical and not meant for public consumption.

Anyway, I felt less conspicuous when I spotted the women in towels. Yes, the answer to the question ‘what do you do if you’re in the shower and the fire alarm goes off?’ is ‘you put on a towel and head outside’. Poor things. (The towels aren’t generous in size either…)

We were only (only?) on the street for half an hour, before being moved to a moderately warmer bit of the building. At this point we were warned that it might be some time before we got back into the gym (the fire brigade hadn’t been able to locate the source of the smoke – worrying), but that anyone who wanted to continue training could head over to the other branch down the road – how very helpful. My main fear at that point was that I wouldn’t get home in time to vote, kicking myself for not voting in the morning. [Though my midday political epiphany changed how I voted – this is an entirely separate story.]

So, we sat in the corridor for what seemed an eternity. I was still cold, but buried myself in my book to try and forget about it. Thank goodness for reading on exercise bikes, otherwise I’d have been severely traumatised. (Shame the book in question was a definite children’s book, but thanks Becki for the loan!) At one point there was the possibility we’d be unable to get in that night and I was facing the prospect of being locked out of my flat till 10.30pm, with no food and no means of buying any, clad in just a vest and shorts. (Though I could have voted, that would’ve used up some time.)

In the end, it was 7pm when we got back in – only an hour after the evacuation, but a very long hour. Barely taking the time to do more than throw all my stuff into my bag, I left as quickly as possibly and caught the train home. Talking to my mother on the phone, I realised that I was in fact on a train that I’d probably have caught if I’d done my full workout, so hadn’t lost any time at all.

It was 7.20 when I joined the queue at the polling station and I cast my vote 15minutes later. I probably needn’t have panicked, but I’d have hated to have democracy snatched from my grasp through no fault of my own – like these poor people.

Oh and as for my public dignity, I cast that to the wind and voted whilst still wearing my gym kit, with just my jacket over the top, such is my dedication to the democratic process.

On election morning

The message is still just one word: VOTE.
Fortunately, it looks like people are doing just that and turnout should be above the pathetic 61.5% of the last General Election.

Despite all the excitement over the Lib Dems resurgence and the transformation of the campaign into a proper three horse race, the result is still likely to be what was predicted months ago. It’s my right – according to the Ballot Act of 1872 – to keep my vote secret (thanks Mim for that nugget of information) but I will disclose that I’m not in favour of the result the polls have predicted. 
The last time that particular party won an election was in 1992 and I was nearly 11. It was the election which we thought would change everything (we were proved wrong), but I definitely wasn’t aware of it at the time. My main memory from election day itself was that we had the day off school (polling station), went swimming and had a picnic. However, the morning after marked a momentous occasion – it was the day I began a diary. Admittedly, it lasted all of one day and wasn’t embarked upon again for another two years, but still, an important moment. 
Though the mists of time have lost the entry itself, my insane memory can remember the opening sentence: “The Conservatives won the election. I’m pleased, because it means nothing will change.” 
Ahhh, my poor befuddled young mind – always one to be paranoid of change. Still, if one good thing came out of that election it was the fact that 1997 was all the sweeter. 
I’d be tempted to have some kind of election party this year, if it weren’t for the fact that it’ll probably be depressing; involves staying up all night; and will have a negative impact upon the work I need to do tomorrow. Instead, I will continue to amuse myself with the fabulous election playlist a friend of mine has created and fall asleep with the TV so that my subconscious absorbs the result before I wake up and face the reality. 

Disillusionment

Election time has rolled around again.
I’m a big fan of democracy and will drone on (at length) about how important it is to use your right to vote.

Right at this minute a historical moment in British politics is taking place. On ITV, all three leaders of the ‘big 3’ political parties are engaged in a televised debate – for the first time ever. Yes American readers, 40 years after JFK V Nixon, we’ve joined the modern era…

Instead of watching it, I’ve got Have I Got News for You (satirical political comedy) on in the background, simply so I don’t miss the start of Outnumbered. In the mean time, I’ve been searching for cheesy karaoke games for my Wii, cleaning my bathroom & now writing this post. This is a dramatic change from the girl who 11 years ago used to make a point of watching PMQs every Wednesday and wrote her A-level politics general study on a comparison of New Labour and the New Democrats.

I loved politics. In 6th Form I genuinely wanted to be a poltician – it’s one of the reasons I went to the university I did, because of its radical political history. [It says something for its students that when I arrived, the LSE Tories had a couple of hundred membes, LSE Labour had a few hundred, LSE Lib-Dems had just 30.] I threw myself into student politics briefly, enjoyed the odd demo or too (still do) and joined a political party.

Now it’s unlikely I’ll even vote for that party. Not because I’m disillusioned with them – it’s more to do with local politics in my constituency and tactical voting. But I am disillusioned with British politics in general. Our MPs have been tarred by the expenses scandal; no party is actually able to promise that they will deliver us from the global economic crisis; and our political system (First Past the Post) means that minor parties don’t really get a look in.

At least this year there’s the possibility of a hung Parliament and thus Independents and small parties have more importance. For an interesting exposition on what the disillusioned voter could do, read Andy’s post on Electioneering – he does more research into his posts than I usually do and seems to care passionately about the issue, thus he is far more eloquent than I.

Now for the public service announcements:

  • If you’re British, make sure you’re registered to vote. You’ve got until April 20th.
  • Remember to vote on May 6th. If you’re away, organise a postal or proxy vote. Don’t waste your right. I still haven’t quite forgiven myself for not voting in 2005. It wasn’t my fault – my polling card wasn’t forwarded to me quickly enough to sort the postal vote – but I was gutted. 
  • Do some research into who’s standing in your constituency and what their policies are. Read the manifestos of some of the smaller parties (the Greens’ came out today) and try and identify what you care about. 
Yes, politics can be dull and monotonous. Yes, many of us are disillusioned, but the truth is that unless you vote you lose your right to complain about it for the next 5 years. End of story. 
Image credit: A women’s liberation demonstration in New York.’Keystone’/Getty Images

Polling [Updated]

It’s election time. Admittedly, not the most exciting or life-influencing election, but today is a day when your democratic right to vote should be excercised, regardless.

I’m not apologetic for the fact that I’m one of those people who rants on and on in the run-up to the polls about how important it is to vote, how people died (and are still dying) for such a right and, how you can’t complain about the results if you haven’t contributed.

European elections don’t result in a parliament that makes laws, but it still has influence and is what I like to think of as the ‘fun’ election – where you can vote for parties you might not usually consider, purely because they have better European policies. I’m not sure which way I’m voting yet, but I’ll do some reading before I head to the polling station this evening. [Ok, just done some research, this Guardian outline is very useful & amusing. Also, it’s important to check if you’re area has a strong BNP presence as your vote could help stop them gaining seats.]

One of my colleagues has just expressed surprise that there’s an election today, so me and my Kiwi colleague have both ranted on at him for a considerable length of time. Just to bait us, he’s insisted that this is why women took so long to get the vote…yeah, whatever!

The fight for suffrage runs throughout history (in fact, I might suggest Women’s Suffrage as another ‘Happy History’ topic), but there is one particular moment which stands out for me as the reason why I will always make the effort to vote:

In 1994, many black South Africans voted for the very first time, in elections that marked the dawn of a new South Africa. Aged just 12, I spent the evening with my parents at a church service in honour of the elections. Shortly after it began, a woman in her early 60’s danced into the room.

In London, she was a successful nurse, but had fled South Africa many years earlier. Her final humiliation on arriving in the UK was having her passport destroyed in front of her at South Africa House. Yet on that day in April 1994 she returned to the scene of that humiliation to vote for the first time in her life. Her face shone, she was so happy that finally she had done something denied to her and her friends and family for so long. When I said she ‘danced’ into the church, I meant it.

And it’s because of her, and the millions of others like her, that voting is important. Even if it’s ‘just Europe’ or ‘just the local council’. There is no ‘just’, it’s democracy and we shouldn’t take it for granted.