My first vote and why I’m still #hungry4democracy

I can’t remember if it was February or October 1974 but I do know that it was grey and cold. I was either  6 or 7 and I was walking up Tomatin Road in Inverness heading to Hilton Church Hall where my parents were going to cast their votes. That instilled in me that voting was something that was important to do. I didn’t really understand the issues, but I knew it was important that we were able to choose the Government.

Fast forward a few years to the weeks running up to the 1987 General Election. Although I was away at university at that time, I had decided to have a postal vote as I was keen to vote for Robert Maclennan, the SDP MP for Caithness and Sutherland for whom I had actively campaigned.

As I opened the envelope containing my ballot and, with due solemnity, cast my vote, I reflected that 70 years earlier, I wouldn’t have been able to do so. In fact, even 60 years earlier, I wouldn’t have had that chance. I would have been excluded from the electoral register purely because I was a woman (in 1917) or a young woman with no property (in 1927).  I thought about the women who had fought for my right to vote in different ways. Many had given their lives and liberty and were subjected to appalling treatment by the state as they fought for the right to vote. Their sacrifices made me determined to use my vote on every occasion. I only failed once, but I suspect that both Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst might have approved. I was working in the target seat of Chesterfield and had been there all week. I simply didn’t get a break from door-knocking to enable me to go home and vote. From that point, I have had a postal vote for every election.

On Tuesday, it will be the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Representation of the People Act which gave around 40% of the women in the country, as well as all men over 21, the vote for national elections. That and further extensions of the franchise don’t mean our democracy is in healthy state, though. Our antiquated First Past the Post system doesn’t give people the Parliament they ask for and it is the worst system for equality of  representation between men and women.

Sal Brinton wrote last week about why she will be taking part in a 24 hour fast from 8pm tomorrow night as part of Make Votes Matters #HungryforDemocracy event.

Make Votes Matter recognises the campaigning, suffering and even death that those women faced over many years to win the vote, which is why many of us will not eat for 24 hours on Tuesday 6 February to mark their commitment and recognise that our democracy today is broken.

If you want to join us, please use #Hungry4Democracy over the next few days and especially on Tuesday 6 February to explain why you think we need PR. If you want and are able to take a more significant actions then join us on our 24 hour hunger strike from 8pm on Monday 5 February, and join our vigil (for however long or short a time you can) outside Parliament from 7am – 8pm on Tuesday 6 February. If you can’t join us on the day, help us to make social media sing with #Hungry4Democracy.

I’m going to be taking part as well. 24 hours without food will be nothing compared to what our ancestors went through but I want to do my little bit to make the point that in 2018, although we all have the vote, we don’t get the Parliament we ask for.

That first vote of mine in 1987, cast with a wholehearted belief in both the radical policies of the Alliance and in the integrity of the candidate, was the only time I’ve ever managed to vote for my MP.  I can at least say that I have had some say in my local councillors since we’ve had STV for local government in Scotland, but at Westminster level, my vote simply does not count.

For me it’s also important that if we are going to look at how our democracy works, we must include 16 and 17 year olds in that. Any argument that they somehow aren’t mature enough to take part in elections was smashed into oblivion with the way they engaged in the Scottish Referendum in 2014. It was brilliant to see a whole stream of young people in school uniform come in to cast their votes as I was on polling station duty. In Scotland 16 and 17 year olds have the vote at every election except Westminster. On the Saturday before the Holyrood election in 2016, my husband, I and our then 16 year old cast our votes together sitting round our kitchen table. It was quite an emotional moment. Sadly, 13 months later, only 2 of us could vote in the 2017 General Election.

Liberal Democrats fought so hard to get 16 and 17 year olds the vote in the EU Referendum and were thwarted by the Government. There is quite a crisis for democracy ahead in that by the time we leave the EU, if that happens, it is highly likely that a majority will be in favour of staying in.

So, while we rightly celebrate the landmark step forward achieved a century ago, we need to recognise that there’s a long way to go before our democracy is in good shape.

 

There are three things you can do over the next few days:

Firstly, take part in the #hungry4democracy events in whatever way suits you – fasting, social media or going to the rallies.

Secondly, if you have a story to tell about family members who campaigned for votes for women, let us know and we will publish it on Tuesday.

Thirdly, tell us about your first vote and why it was special for you.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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5 Comments

  • David Warren 4th Feb '18 - 4:07pm

    I cast my first vote aged 19 in the 1983 Newbury District Council Elections.

    By that time I was immersed in Labour party activism and in an area where the party was extremely weak I played a key role.

    I was both the Secretary of the local constituency party and the agent for those elections.

    It was a struggle to find candidates with the whole council up for election.

    We ended up with 14 for 45 seats, I wanted to join them but in those days you had to be 21 to be a councillor.

    Naively I though we would win some seats and I encouraged active campaigning in a couple of wards.

    We came third in both which included the one where I then lived which was won by a Liberal called Doug Lawrence.

    There was a Labour councillor standing for re-election over in Hungerford but he was pretty much an independent who had no relationship with the local party.

    He lost a seat he had held since 1964.

    It was pretty much a Tory landslide and in the General Election a month later where again I was agent we got more of the same.

    I will be fully supporting the #hungryfordemocracy initiative but given my poor health my activities will be restricted to social media.

    Our FPTP voting system is an offence against democracy.

  • paul holmes 4th Feb '18 - 4:32pm

    My first vote after my 18th birthday in 1975 was to Remain in the EEC. I was studying Politics at the time, I watched the TV debates and read the print media and the leaflets thoroughly. The single thing that stands out in my mind all this time later though was that with Tony Benn at one extreme and Enoch Powell at the other, both saying we should leave, there could only be one sensible response!

    I agree about votes at 16. I was a teacher for 21 years including being Head of Sixth Form for 12 years. Sure there were 16 year olds who wouldn’t have had a clue about voting but I have met lots of adults in the same position. Many 16 year olds though have an excellent knowledge of current affairs and strong views on the world they want to see. Plus of course they are voting alongside thousands of other people so it is not as if their single vote results in a unilateral decision that will affect their lives in a drastic and irrevocable way. Extending the vote to 16 year olds would not however automatically boost turnout or always side with a particular perspective. Labour reduced the voting age to 18 for 1970 partly from a belief it would favour them but in a shock election result the Conservatives won.

    I’m pleased Labour are now advocating votes at 16 but remember them voting against a Liberal Democrat proposal for this whilst I was in Parliament,

  • I was a candidate in the October 1974 General Election. My female agent was at the polling station before it opened and she was reported in the evening paper (we had them in those days) as being the first woman to vote Liberal in Rother Valley since 1918 – the last time it had seen a Liberal candidate. She organised the addressing of 38,000 election addresses and we saved the deposit!

  • Phil Beesley 5th Feb '18 - 1:32pm

    My first vote was in the 1981 County Council elections on the Fylde. No Liberal stood for the seat so I voted for the Ratepayer Independent; I don’t recall the other candidates or their parties.

    A few months later I talked about it with a Liberal Party friend from the same town. He protested that Ratepayer candidates were usually Conservatives stalking under cover. Perhaps the candidate was an old school, paternalistic Tory in disguise. But he ran the local chemists shop, he helped my mum and dad with six children beyond the requirements of his job. Worth a vote, I’d say, within the limitations of FPTP.

  • I have strong memories of being 17 while older school friends were voting in their first general election and feeling put out about it. I support votes at 16, but think it’s less important than ditching FPTP, because even if I had been able to vote at 17, it would have been a wasted vote as it was a very safe seat.

    I worked at the Scottish referendum and unfortunately had to tell off a lot of parents who thought it was fine to peer over the shoulders of their children, one explaining that it was OK because she’s his mother, not a random stranger! I even had a couple of men in the booth, very obviously telling them where to put their cross and getting irate when I told them that their child had to do it themselves. On the other hand, when it came to the recent local elections, it was apparent that a decent number of younger voters knew exactly how STV worked and done research so it wasn’t just a case of putting a single mark against the candidate with the right coloured rosette.

    I also paid a lot of attention to the recent local election results and I honestly think that we’ve got much better councillors as a result. Putting aside party preference, it seemed to me that where a party was standing two candidates in the same ward, the better (IMHO) candidate was the one getting more first preference votes.

    It sometimes feels like the LibDems have lost their enthusiasm for electoral reform, and I understand the reluctance to bore on about something that appears to be about our own self-interest, but I think it’s more important than ever, and the problems of FPTP are more apparent than ever, so we need to keep pushing.

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