Sunday, 25 October 2009

In the name of liberal democracy..

My feet have gone beyond aching, but finally after months of build-up, which has led to a few things this blog included being neglected, it's over. I'm promising myself never, never, never-ever again just like I did last year, but this time I mean it. I haven't run a marathon or gone for an agonisingly long hill-laden distance bike ride, no; I've just been collecting peoples names for the register of electors.

It all starts in August. A couple of pleasant sunny mornings spent posting letters containing the forms through peoples doors. Just as the leaves are turning yellow come the reminders in September. Then October; Stage 3 - the door knocking stage. Stage 3 involves knocking on the door of every non-responding address twice. The statutory time frame for this is the 9th - 26th October. The sociology graduate in me finds this stage interesting. The Chicago School of Urban Ecology Theorists after all felt in order to get under the skin of a city to really know how it works you need to wear out as much shoe leather as possible.

My area for the past two years is what the Chicago School Theorists would term the zone of transition; an area near the very centre of the city with a transient population which serves as an arrival point for recent migrants. This would of course be a gross over-simplification of the dynamic of the area, where individual streets change in character from top to bottom, but provides a broad-brush stroked overview.

Many of the buildings are Victorian, built in the late 1800s and have, ironically through neglect, retained many original features. Many of the mosaiced paths leading to the front doors remain intact. Whilst not quite in the same league as Fishbourne they nevertheless are elegant, attractive features that put any homes built in the last 100 years to shame. Stained glass designs rest above doorways and many porches are brightened by ceramic glazed tiles in a multitude or shapes, colours and designs. No doubt conscientious owner occupiers would have long ago ripped these out to be replaced with whatever was de-jour. Another irony is it is the grandest of these homes, the victorian palaces at the end of tree lined streets abutting the main throughfare, which my Grandmother recalled as the posh part of town, that are now home to the most transient populations; their cavernous shells sectioned into single room dwellings.

Regeneration since the mid 1990s has transformed the area; once known as the red-light district. Investement in health centres and community facilities have been combined with City Patrol vehicles surveying the streets with mounted cameras and community based policing methods to reduce minor anti-social behaviour such as on-street drinking and drunkeness which had provided the area with its former reputation.

In the course of knocking on peoples doors the overwhelmingly majority were friendly even if many chose not to register to vote. Now, here is the difficulty with stage 3. My area has a very low response rate to Stages 1 and 2, in fact this year a response was not received from 593 properties which means potentially knocking on doors 1186 times. This is not just an issue for my feet, but is a huge problem for democracy. Anecdotally the people most reluctant to register are the most margianalised. Hardly any of the residents in the large houses sectioned into bed-sits register and many new eastern-europeans are also highly unlikely to register.

Working in local government I know that politics does matter, political decisions do impact our daily lives, particularly the lives of the most vulnerable who are more likely to be in contact with Health, Social Care, Housing and other services. Marginal groups and new immigrants are also vulnerable to being used as scapegoats for social problems by politicians eager to squeeze votes out of those who do register, but without registering to vote what hope do the marginalised have of having a voice to answer back?


  1. The non-registers may feel A) that the "democratic" choice is only between tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum so why bother and B) that going on the electoral register assists debt collectors and other ill-wishing people to locate them.

  2. Not to mention the possibility of Jury Service! The registers are actually sent to the main credit agencies so yes, it will allow them to locate people. Apparently not being on the register will affect your credit rating. It seems a shame though that there isn't a more pro-active campaign around registration time to encourage people to sign up. I agree about democratic choice, effectively we've got a two party system and it has seemed for a long time that we are sliding towards an inevitable change of government with us as individual voters powerless to stop this momentum.