I did something rather remarkable yesterday: I voted in the UK general election. I find this particularly remarkable because I was actually firmly convinced that I wasn’t even allowed to vote here. The when I got an official poll card in the mail about two weeks ago, I thought that there must have been some mistake. I had the sneaking suspicion that I would go to the polling station on June 7th and be “outed" as an American citizen, at which point my poll card would be snatched from my hand and I would be told to go thither from whence I came, or something to that effect.
But instead, I went to the polling station yesterday (about 100 paces from house), handed over my card and got a ballot in return, which I filled out (such as it was - one big X in pencil on a little sheet of paper) and dropped it in the big black box. And then I rushed out again, not making eye contact with anyone and all the while expecting someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, “Hey, just what do you think you’re doing here, Yank?” - which did not, in fact, happen. Apparently just being married to an English citizen is enough for me to be able to vote here - so for the second time in a year, I was able to play a part in electing one of the most powerful people on earth.
Maybe my life is just too boring otherwise, but I have to say I found the whole thing ridiculously exciting. I’ve voted in American elections before, of course - usually absentee, as I did for this past, ill-fated American election - and though I always get a certain sense of doing something important when I vote, that feeling was somehow different this time, somehow much stronger than ever before.
I think it meant a lot to me to vote in this election because, for the first time ever, I was really aware of what a privilege it is to have the right to vote (if something can be a privilege and a right at the same time). I have to admit that I’ve tended to take my right to vote in American elections somewhat for granted. But I was never able to vote in Germany, and I had resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be able to vote here. In doing this, I resigned myself to the fact that, no matter how long I lived in this country and no matter how “at home” I ever felt here, I would still always be outside of the rest of society to a certain extent. I would always be excluded from the process of making decisions which would greatly affect my life along with everyone else’s. I resigned myself to the fact that I could pay all the taxes I wanted and I could “integrate" myself for all I was worth, and I still wouldn’t have a real voice or a real say in things. I would still just be a foreigner.
Well, I am still a foreigner and I always will be here. But yesterday I was suddenly a foreigner with power, which made feel just that little bit less foreign. When I went into that voting booth, picked up my pencil (I still can’t get over it) and made my mark on the ballot, I felt incredibly empowered. It seemed momentous to me. It seemed extraordinary that I should be able to do such a thing. It made me feel like a real, contributing part of a democratic society, and it gave me a sense of satisfaction at having done at least this one thing to try to make this society better (cue bombastic, heartstring-tugging orchestral score).
And I guess it’s because it meant so much to me that I am so dismayed that so many people didn’t bother to vote yesterday (like, half the population). I don’t really buy any of the reasons that I’ve heard for people not voting. Yes, it was somewhat of a foregone conclusion that Labour was going to win. But if you’re a Labour supporter, why wouldn’t you want to add your vote to everyone else’s so that, in some way, you could be a part of their victory? And if you’re not a Labour supporter, why wouldn’t you want to at least attempt to prevent them from winning?
If you didn’t like the main candidates, why didn’t you vote for one of the others? There were quite a few of them, and they ran the gamut from painfully idealistic Greens to frothing-at-the-mouth British Nationalists - something for every taste. (On second thought, if you support the British National Party, please, don’t vote. Ever.) If you didn’t like anyone, then maybe it’s time you ran for office yourself. And if you deliberately abstained from voting as some sort of protest, then 1) I’m not impressed by your in-activism, 2) maybe it’s time you ran for office, too, instead of trying to pass off your passiveness as some sort of effectual engagement, and 3) don’t even think about complaining about whoever does get into power. And obviously someone will get into power whether you vote or not, so you may as well just schlepp yourself to the polling station and vote for the lesser of the evils, if nothing else. Then you get the right to complain.
Some people said voting didn’t matter because, no matter who was in power, everything stayed the same anyway. I can understand this cynicism and disillusionment, at least when it comes from people who are truly disenfranchised - not, however, when it comes from young, relatively well-off students and professionals who use their practiced cynicism as a front to cover their total apathy. I do think that the sweeping promises of non-ruling parties are inevitably, disappointingly watered down when those parties actually get into power, because relative moderation is probably the only way you can hold on to power (unless, of course, you are a dictator - but that’s not what we’re talking about here).
However, I also think that the ideological differences between political parties are as important in their own way as what the parties promise to deliver. These ideological differences can be immense, and this is why it seems incredible to me that someone could truly believe the Labour party and the Conservative party (or, in America, the Democrats and the Republicans) were simply interchangeable and that it didn’t really matter who got elected. When you vote for a political party, you are not just voting for what the party says it will do, you are also implicitly endorsing everything it stands for and the wider beliefs on which it is founded. If you yourself have any beliefs at all regarding what society should be like, then how can you not vote?
By the same token, I completely fail to understand people who could vote for Labour (or the Democrats) in one election and the Conservatives (or the Republicans) in the next. I mean, you either believe that the government and the stronger members of society have an obligation to help the weaker members, or you believe it’s every man, woman and child for themselves. You either believe that free health service for everyone is a goal worth striving for, or you don’t. Unless someone experiences a truly fundamental change in his or her own personal beliefs between one election and the next (a thing which I can’t imagine happens all that often), I just don’t see how disappointment in, say, Labour’s performance over the past years could drive a Labour voter to vote for the Conservatives. It seems like such a short-sighted, ill-considered thing to do.
But all of this self-righteous griping aside…I voted. And as I stayed up late last night watching BBC 1 to see the results coming in from all over the country, I just thought, “I’m a part of this.” And it moved me. Call me naive and idealistic, call me silly and sentimental. I voted, and I feel like my vote counted.
Of course, if the party I voted for had actually lost, then this might be a very different journal entry indeed…