So far, I haven’t written about political issues in this blog but politics is some of ‘the stuff life is made of’, informing and influencing much of the other ‘stuff’ in all our lives, so for this post I’m stepping out into the arena.
I’ve been thinking increasingly this week about democracy. We’ve a General Election coming up in a month’s time and this week we had local elections for our county councils. The large function hall which is my polling station was very quiet when I walked in after work, giving me time to chat to the clerk, who is an old colleague of mine. The total turnout in our area was just 40% but in Tees Valley it was as low as 21%.
I’m shocked by that. I know there are reasons for it: people are disillusioned with politicians’ integrity; there was a lack of ready information and engagement from the various parties in our town; and recent boundary changes caught many people out (including me) so the names on the ballot paper were not those we were expecting to vote for, turning a considered decision into a more off the cuff one.
But seriously? Only one or two people in every five bothered to vote?
It seems to me that our country is in danger of taking democracy (whatever your opinion of our First Past the Post system may be), that freedom to vote and make choices that will influence our own and others’ lives, for granted.
On Radio 4 this week, I listened to a report about Nepal, where the now illegal practise of separating menstruating women from the rest of the community still goes on. In one village, this means leaving the family home for the duration of their period to stay in a darkened communal room, accessed by a doorway so small the women have to crawl into it. Brand new community toilets have been built next door but women having their period are not allowed to use them; they have to go out into the fields instead, with all the potential dangers.
Can you imagine such restrictions happening here?
It seems so far away, so foreign. Yet legal limitations on making choices about our day to day lives for some of us are not as well established as we like to think. It’s only during my grandmother’s lifetime that women in the UK were given the vote in General Elections. And initially, that wasn’t in line with men’s suffrage as there were age and status limits for women. In fact, it’s only within my father’s lifetime that equal voting rights were granted.
It seems to me that freedom isn’t something to take for granted after all.
It’s a long way from last summer when, for the first time (only a few weeks after my youngest’s 18th birthday), our whole family marched into a busy polling station with great pride to cast our votes in the EU Referendum. We didn’t all vote the same way – but that’s not the point. What matters is that we remembered our right to vote is in fact a freedom and a privilege, that we could not have exercised as a whole family only 100 years ago.
I suppose that freedom means we also have the right not to exercise our vote (although if we don’t like the choice of candidates on the polling card, what’s to stop us standing ourselves?). But if we forget our freedoms or take them for granted, I think we disrespect those who fought to gain them for us and perhaps belittle those who don’t have the same freedoms as us.
So next time I read an article bemoaning the state of British politics or the poor quality of information or parties standing, I’m going to take a breath before I get cross or disheartened, and remember what a blessing it is to have such freedom of choice in the first place.