When you talk to migrants living in this wonderful city about the right to vote you are asked a lot of questions: “Can I register to vote even if I wasn’t born in UK? How can I vote if I work on the polling day? Which document shall I bring with me at the polling station? What can I vote for?”
After we answer all these practical questions, usually the most brave in the group, or simply the most disillusioned, asks more questions: Why should I vote? Who cares about me?
And suddenly everyone in the room seems to have found the perfect spokesperson for their feelings: the sense of powerlessness many citizens have, perceiving political institutions to be some cold, distant thing they don’t belong to or that does not belong to them.
It is the most challenging moment for all of us trying to engage with communities. The positive outcome of the meeting depends on the answer they will receive and they won’t make do with rhetoric or pre-packaged answers.
I could tell them I experienced the horrible consequences of citizens’ turning away from the institutions in my country (Italy). I witnessed the apathy of the electorate leading to the degradation of our politics and our country. But this is not about me, this is about them, here and now, and their need to see their problems reflected on the political agenda.
The truth about why to vote cannot be put into one easy answer. The truth is that the solution of many problems they cope with – lack of constructive activities for their kids, increasing housing prices, street safety, and cost and quality of education, are in the hands of our political representatives and we need to make them work for us. Local authorities supply a large number of services: education, social care, housing, libraries, leisure and recreation, environmental health, waste collection, planning applications, strategic planning, local taxation collection – using a combination of funds from business rates, the Central Government and Council taxes. The latter represent about 25% of local resources.
Councillors are elected in a specific areas (wards) which every borough is divided in and they work in small groups – committees – in order to ensure that all the services are provided in the best way. In a nutshell, they represent the local communities and are responsible for their economic and social well-being.
So the only way for migrant communities to have their voices heard is to take part in the political process from the beginning and all the time to ensure that they are heard and represented.
This means that the work does not end at the polling station; it requires a constant commitment in terms of participation in the public debate and local action in our neighbourhoods.
In 2010 62% of the electorate went to the polling stations to express their preferences for local councillors, the highest turnout in the history of local elections. This result is pretty far from the trend observed during the previous 16 years, when the average of the electoral participation was around 35%. It is not complicated to figure out the impact organised communities could have in boroughs where foreign-born people represent 30, 40 or even 50% of the residents – especially in those wards where the difference between the third elected councillor and the first not-elected was 10, 20, 50, or 100 votes.
In boroughs like Tower Hamlets, Newham, Brent and many others a handful of votes could be decisive in everyone’s daily life, especially after the Localism Act in November 2011 decentralized the power and increased the role of local government. Foreign-born people or others who feel marginalized or excluded should realise they have the power to change their own situation.
The simple and complicated truth is that democracy and voting is not about politics or elections, it is about everyday life and we need to be at it every day.
I have spent many months listening to people who made incredible effort to escape from war, poverty, lack of opportunities, all to have a better life talk about how they feel detached from their local politics. I am not sure that I have right answer for them, but I have a question: do you really want to give up now?
Useful links in making up your mind about why and who to vote for:
BBC Guide to European and Local Elections 2014
Wikipedia Guide to UK Local Elections 2014
Vote for Policies makes it easy to compare what the political parties are promising to do. It helps you make an informed, unbiased decision about who to vote for.
Vote Match is an online election quiz which matches users to the political party that best represents their views in an election, based on the issues which they select as most important.
Wikipedia Guide to EU Elections 2014
And if you still stuck on “Why Should I Vote?” question have a look at some inspirational young people we have been working with – they just can’t wait to vote!