04 May, 2006

Cross talk

I didn't vote today, not because I didn't want to, but because I wasn't able to.

The first day I'd spent living in London turned out to be last day for submissions to be added to the electoral roll - something I didn't discover until a week or so later when a poster conveniently advertised the fact. As such I missed out, and as such this was the first election I have not taken part in since I became eligible to vote.

I was really quite cut up about this. Not that my particular vote, in this vast ocean of blue that is Barnet, would have had any impact upon the constitution of the council. No, it was, as ever, the principle of the thing, and the sense of opting out - be it through accident or design - of the great democratic process.

Year upon year I have heckled apathetic friends and colleagues along the lines of how, if they didn't vote, they had forfeited the right to express any kind of opinion whatsoever about aspects of their everyday lives, be it the state of the roads, the level of council tax, the day when the binmen came round, the colour of the bins that were being emptied, anything. Now I find myself in precisely the same position, and it's like I've been neutered. I almost feel guilty about offering any kind of comment about the elections, even as an observer.

More painful is the way 2006 now marks the end of an uninterrupted run of voting which began way back in 1994, a couple of months after my 18th birthday, when me and a couple of friends went down to the local polling station after school (how weird does that sound?) to play our very first part in the centuries-old tradition of participatory politics.

It seemed an acutely sobering yet also strangely comical business. Here we were, straight out of the common room and into the voting booth, as potent an illustration as you can get of being caught between the worlds of youth and adulthood, straddling that all-too notional divide of innocence and experience, wielding the pencil stub on a ballot paper with the same hands that an hour or so earlier had wielded a biro in an exercise book. I remember leaving the polling station - a local junior school, as they always are - feeling both proud but also disappointed at how that was all there was to it. No instant sense of cause and effect. No immediate dispensation of justice. Just another statistic to be added to a column and tallied up to amount to...well, nothing in this case, and my vote did nothing to change the status quo.

Which has, indeed, always been the case. Or so it feels. I took great pleasure in using a postal vote in 1997 so I could help kick the Tories out of my home town, but then as it turned out everyone seemed to have done the same thing and the novelty, such as it was, evaporated. But aside from that I always voted in Liverpool, which I guess did make me out to be something of a rarity and a unique case, especially during the time I was living in the constituency with the lowest turnout in the whole country.

As a useful illustration of this, I once encountered a bit of good old-fashioned rival canvassing down the road from where I used to live, wherein the sitting Labour councillor was holding forth a mere few metres from a Socialist Labour candidate. Naturally nobody was taking a blind bit of notice, and quite rightly, because both practitioners were far too busy trying to shout each other down than articulate anything of note to the passing voter. Fittingly neither of them won the seat.

There was one time I went to vote in a local election and I couldn't find the front door of the polling station. Another time the electoral officer couldn't find my name on their list of registered voters but let me "have a go" regardless. I love all of this. I love the antiquated nature of having to go along to an unlikely building and hand in your card to some unlikely person who ticks your name off a very long printed out list and who hands you a piece of paper which you then have to take over to a primitive, hastily-constructed freestanding booth with a bit of tatty curtain partitioning your from your neighbour, and then put a big, simple cross against the name of your choice.

I love the fact you can't do it online. I love the fact you can't do it by phone. I love the sense of accomplishment all the business of going to the polling station and placing your cross on the paper invokes and instils. Which is why I hate the fact I haven't been able to do it this year.

Those council bastards. How dare they deny me the right to vote! I'd do something about it, except I can't, because I'm not able to vote. Funny that.


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