Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Do your homework! Lessons and observations from my UK election experience

This was the second time I voted during British elections, but the first for the UK parliament. I am not a member nor a passionate supporter of any political party. During the course of election campaign, I was certain I would be voting for Labour, but on the election day I ended up voting for the Greens.

A night before going to the polling station I suddenly realised that I was lacking a very crucial piece of information. Although I wanted to vote for Labour (the party), I had no idea who I was going to vote for (the MP candidate, that is) !! It’s like I suddenly woke up, my brain re-started functioning and my vision became clearer.

If you follow the UK election campaign, it's all about political parties (and their leaders) fighting each other for your vote. It’s very easy to forget that there is an important caveat there: even though you may wish to vote for a particular party, in fact you vote for a particular candidate who represents that party in your constituency (formally speaking, “represents you”). While it is expected that MPs support their party’s election manifesto and key values, they are not bound by party’s decisions, they can rebel and break the ranks during the voting in the parliament (this can be a very good thing, but a very bad thing too).

So yes, while MPs represent their party, their own position matters and can influence an outcome of issues that matter to you. That’s why, as much as you support any particular party during the election, it is so important to do a homework and check candidates’ views re at least some of the key issues that matter to you. Of course, if they are former MPs, their voting record is easy to check, but even if they are not MPs, google search is the least we can do to get an insight on the candidates before deciding who to vote for.

Luckily (well, sort of), a Labour candidate in my 'safe Labour' constituency was a long serving MP. Disappointingly though, what I discovered while studying his voting record was his pretty poor gay rights records. Just imagine how would I feel afterwards if unwittingly voted for him. Here we are. The lesson. Never trust parties for their selection (and not only). All they care is a ‘safe seat’. Always check candidate’s profile and views. Had I just went blindly for 'vote Labour', I would end up voting for a bigoted person.

Among other observations, I’d mention the abundance of personal attacks and negative campaigning during the whole pre-election period. It’s part of the tradition, I suppose. It can be entertaining, but only to an extent. Even for a person who have lived in the UK for a decade already and is used to parliamentary debates here, the sheer volume of personal attacks during  the campaign was way too much and up-your-face for my liking. Forget about cliche British reservedness and politeness. When it comes to politics and election campaign, it’s an opposite of that cliche.

What surprised me most during the actual election day in the UK, there are no ID checks at polling stations. You do not even need to show a polling card. They just ask for your address and "confirm your name, please” (verbally!). In theory, anyone who knows your name and address can easily come and vote instead of you.

Also, you could see the representatives of some candidates outside the polling station PR-ing for their candidate on the day of election too, distributing leaflets, trying to convince you to vote for their candidate just before your enter the polling station. This may be legal but unexpected for me and annoying.

And most of the main British media end up supporting (explicitly or implicitly) particular party(ies), even The Independent…

But regardless, even with this abundance of populism and negative campaigning, with all these shortcomings, the election campaign in the UK is an exercise of democracy. At times it’s pretty entertaining and hilarious; at other times - totally uninspiring, boring and disappointing; occasionally - very stimulating, when party leaders challenge each other on their ideas and programmes.

This all affects your decisions, of course, but at the end of the day you vote with your free will. You are responsible for the decisions and choices you make. And your vote counts. Something that substantial proportion of the world’s population is still deprived of.