I miss voting
It’s local election day -- and, of course, I have voted, in a way. I learned very young from a radical mother that women had only recently fought for suffrage and that it was little short of a crime not to use the right. So use it I do.
But nowadays I use it on the kitchen table, with a postal vote. It takes rather less time than going down to the polling station, which is why I opted for it. But actually the opaque instructions they give you, the complicated system of envelopes (two of them A and B) and the declaration that you have to sign, means that the saving is less than you think. I also half suspect that several of my previous postal votes will have been invalidated because I put the wrong piece of paper into the wrong envelope.
The real problem, though, is that on this system voting becomes a very low key experience – done over a bottle of wine, and a jolly chat with the husband about the merits of the various candidates (or in our case about the merits of the Lib Dem and the renegade Lib Dem now standing as an Independent -- I opted for the former; he did too, I think, but confidentiality here is still the rule).
All this is a far cry from walking to the polling station in the redundant school down the road, passing the friendly copper and the party reps taking your number, declaring your identity to the officials, going into the little booth, putting a cross with your pencil and finally folding the piece of paper up and slipping it into that battered tin box.
Even I could never do that without a bit of a shudder of civic responsibility and sense of occasion.
All of which makes me think that the New Labour ideas of encouraging us to vote by making it easier (postally, on-line, at the supermarket, by text) are terribly misconceived. If you want people to take voting seriously, you don’t make it an everyday event; you let it continue to be part of a moving, even inconvenient, ritual of citizenship.
And you certainly stop people like me thinking that they can save a few minutes by not trooping down to the polling station and doing it all by post. Meanwhile you give up those silly symbolic substitutes that Gordon Brown has in mind, like saluting the flag. It’s not hard to foresee a nightmare future in which none of us vote, but we all have a Union flag loyally fluttering in the front garden.
Other cultures do, and did, this better. My anthropologist daughter put me on to some great work by one of her tutors on the ritualization of voting in Indian democracy. And, of course, the Romans knew that voting worked by making it an occasion that you had to give up time for. In their case, it probably took a whole day, waiting for your turn to go up on the “bridge” to cast your vote.
I think on balance I’d be prepared to give up the convenience of the kitchen table vote if we could just recapture some of that mystical shudder of going into the polling booth and being a fully enfranchised citizen. Citizenship is, after all, supposed to take time. And that’s what my Mum wanted and valued, and was prepared to give almost anything for.