When Russell Brand famously decried voting a waste of time last year I was angry. At the same time I was grateful to him for sparking a national debate on the state of our democracy. There followed a flash debate online. The drudge of selfies and pictures of cats were replaced with a tirade of angry outbursts on the case for and against voting.
Since then we’ve witnessed the rise of right-wing parties in both local and European elections in May, in part owing to dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties. Of course while this has nothing to do with Brand, I do empathise with the disenchantment he represents.
Let’s look for a moment what happened at the elections. Who did the main political parties reach out to? Did they talk to migrants or refugees, to the homeless, or to our young people? No. Instead, they used immigration to appeal to people’s fears. They scored cheap political points in the press, tailoring their messages to established communities who always turn out to vote.
Even so local turnout was just 36% – and only 34% in the European elections.
Two months before the last elections I had the privilege of bringing a talented group of leaders together at The Forum to discuss the importance of voter registration and political participation. On the 18th March we met: Lucila Granada from Latin American Women’s Rights Service and the Coalition of Latin Americans in the UK, Deqa Salat from HEAR Women, Iris Radulian and Costel Cam from My Romania, Wojciech Hinc from Polish Professionals, Didier Ibwilakwingi from the Congo Great Lakes Initiative. We were also joined by Roma Fiseha and Nafisa Ahmed from St Charles Sixth Form College: wonderful young women aged 16 and 18, from migrant backgrounds.
The room was rich in diversity and experience. Lively discussion flowed about why people felt political engagement mattered. We shared ideas about how to register communities to vote. CLUAK’s Voter Registration campaign had started a long time before, and Lucila was able to share information with us about working with the Latin American community. Polish Professionals had also been running a sophisticated social media campaign that was already well under way.
A month after the elections we met again to reflect together on what was achieved and how we can carry our learning forwards to future elections. Collectively this dynamic group registered 4857 people to vote!
There are 168 marginal constituencies where the black and ethnic minority electorate is larger than the sitting MP’s majority. In a 139 of them, 4,857 voters would have been more than enough to swing the vote. In the 2015 general election black and ethnic minority voters hold the power to decide who wins – but only provided that black, minority and migrant communities get registered, turn out to vote and don’t leave it to those who voted last time!
So are you registered to vote in 2015 yet?
You can now register online, just follow this link: https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote. It’s never too early to register!
Not sure if you are eligible? Check out the list of countries that are eligible to register here: http://www.aboutmyvote.co.uk/who_can_register_to_vote.aspx
The system has changed from household to individual registration. From now on, people have to register as individuals. You should be transferred automatically, and you should receive a letter telling you whether you need to register again or not. If you are unsure if you are registered or not simply click on this link: http://www.aboutmyvote.co.uk/am_i_already_registered_to_vot.aspx and enter your address to find out the contact details of your local registration office. They will be able to tell you if you are currently registered or not.
One thing that stands out from the evaluation meeting for me was Didier Ibwilakwingi’s contribution. Didier explained that, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ‘it has been dictatorship, dictatorship, dictatorship! When people come here they have not had the chance to experience democracy before.’ Didier cannot vote – but that did not stop him from registering those from his community who can.
Democracy isn’t perfect and it’s messy but thankfully it isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future. In the UK we have the luxury of using our democratic powers to work together to take charge of our future. If we register to vote, organise and make our different communities more visible in the run up to the elections, we can start to build a future free from a divisive and dangerous rhetoric around migration.