Tag Archives: General Election

Confessions of a Poll Clerk.

15 Jun

I’ve always voted in elections, be they local, General or referenda. That’s every election since 1970, when Edward Heath’s Conservatives confounded all expectations and all poll- predictions  by defeating Harold Wilson’s Labour Party. ( Where have you heard that one before?) I have voted in community centres in south Manchester and north Hertfordshire, schools in Sheffield, churches or scout huts in North Tyneside and Civic Centres in Cleveland. On all those occasions I just slipped in and out before or after work and didn’t spare a second thought about the people manning the polling stations. I think I just assumed they were council employees who were being very well paid for their long day’s work. But I barely thought about them, just taking it for granted that they would be on duty and making our cherished democratic process possible.

Well now, in my retirement years, I have ended up being one of those poll clerks. The money is not great and the hours are extremely long. The poll stations operate from 7am to 10pm, a total of 15 hours. However we have to arrive by 6-30am at the latest in order to set up and then at the end, it takes at least 20 minutes to pack everything away. My colleague, officially known as the Presiding Officer, then has to lock up, return the keys to the caretaker and finally, transport the sacred ballot box and all the forms and stationary down to the HQ of the count, which is several miles away. It’s a hell of a long day, and this year we’ve done it twice — once for the Tees Valley Mayoral election and a second time 7 weeks later for the snap General Election called by the Prime Minister, Theresa May. On both occasions I had to get up at 5-15 am and didn’t get back home before 10-30pm. All poll clerks have to sign a special form, exempting themselves from The European Working Time Directive. This states that no-one should work no more than 48 hours a week and should have a break at least every 4.5 hours. By signing a simple form, we polling- station staff voluntarily pull out of this sensible, civilised arrangement and let ourselves in for a 16 hour endurance tests, with no official breaks. We have to snatch our food and drinks in-between voters.  You might think the pay for such an arduous and important job would be brilliant. However, it works out at approximately £7.50 an hour, roughly around the current minimum wage. We get paid a bit for a training session for a couple of hours 2 days before. However, in my case, the taxman comes in to take his cut, so I actually get even less than the above.

So, long hours and low pay  — the question is, why do we do it? Obviously different people have different reasons. Many are council employees who are “persuaded” to work at the polling station instead of doing their usual job for that day. I presume they get paid twice although I don’t actually know. In my case, I work as a poll clerk for 3 main reasons. The first is that bit of extra money to top- up my pension and go towards the holiday fund. The second reason, I suppose, is because it’s a sort of public service. In this sense, it’s a bit like jury duty although that is compulsory if one is selected. If we are to continue enjoying the benefits of living in a democracy, then some of us have to make it possible for everyone else to exercise their votes. Thirdly, one gets to be part of a little bit of history. This is especially so in a General Election which determines the UK’s next Government, or in the Referendum about whether to remain in or leave the European Union. The place was buzzing that day in June, 2016, with a much bigger turn out for the EU referendum than for a normal election.  ( In our case, pushing 70%)  We could tell something dramatic was afoot as the people came in their droves. Quite a lot had not voted in a long time or had never ever voted before. Some, whipped- up by a Facebook campaign, were suspicious of the thick pencils that are always provided in the booths, and insisted on using their own pens. Many didn’t know what to do. “Is this the election where every vote counts?” they asked, excited by the feeling of empowerment that an election can give one. I can now tell my grandchildren and write in my diary that I processed some of the votes that took the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Whether you voted LEAVE or REMAIN, you have to admit it was a historical occasion.

I work in a small ex-mining village in Cleveland, on the eastern edge of Tees-side in North east England. It’s called North Skelton. Everyone is friendly and we have no trouble. In training we get warnings about anti-social behaviour, teenagers running in and stealing the ballot box, verbal abuse from people who find they are not registered to vote, people angrily spoiling their papers and people taking selfies in the voting booth to put them on social media. We are also warned about people from the political parties canvassing near the polling station or putting up party posters that might influence people as they turn up to vote. Everything has to be fair and neutral. We are instructed to not engage in political discussions with members of the public, even though we may be asked interesting or challenging questions. We are even told to wear neutral coloured clothes and avoid colours associated with the competing political parties. So I cannot wear: red, blue, orange, green or even purple, the latter being UKIP’s colour. My colleague and I usually end up in boring black and white. One year, I turned up for a November election in a royal blue jumper by mistake. When the presiding officer pointed this out to me, I insisted on taking it off and ended up shivering for the next 12 hours or so. This year, following the shocking terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London, we were also given extra instructions about security.

The voters of North Skelton are very friendly as I have said. We have had no trouble at all. Now that we have manned the same station several times, we have got to know some of the characters. There’s the plasterer who comes in early in his white splattered overalls. There’s the woman who works at the Post office sorting office and the man who is a ticket inspector on the local train. There’s the man who works the tills at Tesco’s and the woman who votes in her green uniform after her shift at Asda. Then there’s the retired District Nurse and the man who parks his white van outside after a day fitting double- glazing. Quite a few thank us for what we are doing, especially when they realize what a long day we are working for their community. One woman has bought us home baked cakes and another gave us a chocolate wafer bar each. One of my favourite punters is a man who writes humorous poetry. I must have told him that I used to be a history teacher because in this recent election, he brought me in two hand- written ditties, one about the Vikings and one about the Normans. He even took my address so he could post me some more.

We get young voters coming in, some of them for the first time. It’s lovely to see the genuine excitement on their faces as they prepare to cast their first ever vote. It makes a refreshing change to witness this in an age of supposed political apathy. This last general Election actually saw a surge of young voters going into the polling booths to have their say. It always depresses me to hear of people who cannot be bothered to use their vote. In my more pompous moments I think this is an abnegation of their civic responsibility. My colleague and I have sat through Council elections and Police Commissioner elections when the turn out has been as low as 20% and 12% respectively. It makes for a long, draggy day having only about 6 or 7 people walking in every hour. We also get old people coming in to vote, some in their wheel chairs or arriving on their invalid scooters. We have to help some to read the ballot paper because their eyesight is fading and they have forgotten their spectacles. Some express pride that they have always used their vote throughout their entire lives. My colleague thinks that the UK should be like Australia, where voting in elections is compulsory. I think that’s a bit draconian but do think it’s a shame that some people refuse to accept any responsibility for what happens in their own country. In my opinion, such non-voters forfeit the right to grumble about any decisions the subsequent government or council may make.

Our polling station is a village hall in North Skelton. At one end is a stage for local amateur dramatic productions. During the day we are visited by a group of adults with special needs who are bussed in to do craft and art activities. Sometimes they do some baking and occasionally wander into the station with chocolate cake mixture all round their mouths! One likes to shake the hands of voters as they come in while another insists on locking the door so we have to watch him like a hawk. At one end of the hall there are often piled up pigeon- boxes, stored by the local pigeon racing club. Recently we saw that they had been carefully sorted out into “hens” and “cocks, and mysterious wooden clocks had been placed in front of them. Presumably they were soon to be transported far away and then the race would be on to see whose bird reaches home first. One of the “pigeon men” told us that the birds are sometimes taken as far away as the continent before being released. The pigeon men are often in dispute with the Zumba women , who don’t like the unsavoury smells that sometimes waft across their dancing space. We sometimes get entertained by the Latin American dance music as the leotard-clad Zumba group are put through their paces. This is another compensation for working that very long day — we get to see community life. A particularly nice moments is when whole families come in to vote together. We even get to meet the local police who usually pop in once or twice during the day to check that everything is alright.

So ends my “confessions” of a poll clerk. It’s long hours and low pay but I enjoy it all in the end. It has many compensations. I only hope that the Prime Minister doesn’t call another surprise election soon. It makes for an interesting day but the attractions of the job would soon start to pall if I had to do it more than once or twice a year!

General Election Blues.

14 May

It’s General Election time 2017. The Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, has called a snap election despite assuring questioners  on numerous occasions that the next general Election wouldn’t be until 2020. Maybe the breaking of her oft repeated promise is something to do with her being way ahead in the opinion polls. Such cynicism will do little to raise the publics already low estimation of politics and politicians.

I always feel strangely uneasy during a General Election campaign. There are many reasons for this. First, there is the awful feeling that, once again, it’s going to be confirmed that I live in a deeply conservative country. The Labour Party, which I support, is being represented as having an extremist, “hard left” programme, and yet I recently read the views of a Swedish political commentator, who remarked that Labour’s policies would be regarded as unremarkable and middle of the road anywhere in Scandinavia. Maybe I’m living in the wrong country!

This blog isn’t aimed to be politically neutral or balanced like a BBC news report supposedly is. I have always held left of centre views as have most of my family and friends. ( Birds of a feather flock together.) Some might call me an unapologetic socialist, which I accept. Although I sadly believe that the current Labour party is almost certain to lose at the polls, I still strongly agree with their election slogan: “For the many, not the few.” In my ideal world, everyone would have equality of opportunity and everyone would look after everyone else. I would love to live in a selfless society where the strong protect the weak and the rich support the poor. That was the type of society envisaged by Clement Atlee’s post 1945 Labour government when it set up the National Health Service and the Welfare State. Not only had Britain won the war against Nazi Germany and Japan, but it now intended to wage war on : poverty, ignorance, hunger and disease. Basing their policies on the ideas of the Beveridge Report of the early 1940’s, the Labour Party swept to power on its promise of creating a country that was fit for the returning heroes.( unlike what was promised but never delivered after the First World War.)

The Welfare State, started by the Liberals in the early 1900s and completed by Labour halfway through the 20th century, is something to be proud of and something which is envied by many other countries. The same goes for the National Health Service, underpinned by the noble idea that nobody should suffer illness and premature death just because they are poor. For 40 years or so a consensus held between the main political parties that these were things to treasure and protect. However, since the days of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s,  both have been under attack, mainly from Conservative administrations including the present one. ( but also from Tony Blair’s New Labour) The idea of pulling together as a nation, engendered in the dark days of World War 2 has now given way to an “every man for himself” approach and “I’m all right Jack” attitude. Benefits, even for disabled people, have been cut and made more difficult to access. Poor people are stigmatised as lazy scroungers. Many branches of the health service have been (or are being) privatised, while the NHS as a whole is seriously underfunded, unable to adequately meet the rising demand caused by our ageing population. The Prime Minister seemed bemused and uncomfortable recently when asked to explain why so many nurses were having to visit food banks. She would not admit any responsibility for the consequences of her government’s policies, but instead vaguely alluded to “many complex reasons.” There’s nothing complex about long hours and low pay.

For me there are many compelling reasons why people should not vote Conservative, but the likelihood is that Mrs May and her party will be voted back in with an increased majority, if the polls are to be believed. So I am depressed and have to live with this feeling of unease, impotence and dread, sitting like a cold, heavy stone in my stomach.

During an election campaign, real and important news is neglected and the electioneering antics of the politicians are given central stage. When the UK has so many real and pressing problems, we are asked instead to witness a dreary beauty contest, with competing politicians trying to win the affections of the British people in order to win power. The BBC pretends to be fair and neutral but many feel it consistently leans to the right. However, most of our newspapers unashamedly support one side over the other. The Sun ,Mail, Express and Telegraph pump out a relentless diet of anti-Labour, anti Jeremy Corbyn propaganda.( rather than genuine news.) This is done because of the probably correct assumption that if you throw enough mud, some of it will stick. It was sickening but not surprising to see one tabloid picturing Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, against a lurid red background, thus trying to associate him with the disgraced leaders of Communist Russia. My own sister, swallowing this propaganda, described Labour as being led by a “red”. ( shades of 1950s style McCarthyism here.) Everyone is welcome to his/her opinion, but it depresses me to hear people trotting out crude tabloid prejudices. I believe the power of the media and especially the press is far too high in Britain, although I would always defend the freedom of the press, which is an important cornerstone of a civilised country. Unfortunately, in Britain today, the press orchestrates public opinion rather than responding to it. The situation is even more depressing when one realizes that some of the main press barons — Murdoch, Dacre and Black– are billionaires living abroad. One would not expect such men to have the interests of ordinary British people close to their hearts. They would rather support the party that would maximise their own profits. To quote the Labour election motto — they are the “few” not the “many.”

So election campaigns get me unsettled and worked up. They get me shouting at the telly! I fear that policies that will be bad for the country will be voted for. I am angry at the constant diet of simplistic propaganda inflaming, rather than informing, people’s opinions. I am depressed that so many people now seem to behave as self-centred individuals rather than as members of a caring society. As Mrs Thatcher notoriously asserted — “There is no such thing as society.” I think it is wrong that our society is increasingly controlled by people whose main aim is to make a profit. This has even infiltrated our schools with the Academy movement. It seems crazy to me that market forces rule human beings rather than vice versa.

So, all this is boiling up inside me but I cannot really talk about it. I discuss issues with my wife and I share views with similar-minded Facebook friends on social media, but in everyday life it would be considered awkward and embarrassing to try to enter into passionate political discussion with people. Most of us quietly go about our daily lives, keeping the peace and keeping up the social niceties. Then in the secrecy of the polling booths, we deliver our verdicts. This is when the great silent majority have their say. Only those in so-called marginal constituencies have any real influence on the election result. That’s another massive frustration! In the “first past the post” system, a party, like the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP can get substantial numbers of votes throughout the country but very few MPs elected to parliament. You don’t win power by getting a lot of close, creditable second places. I would like to see Proportional Representation coming in, so that every voter could have a significant say in the complexion of the subsequent parliament. This unfortunately was roundly rejected by the public in an earlier referendum, probably because many people don’t like change and the PR system was too complicated to fully understand. I hate referendums. They often ask for a simple answer to a complicated question which is an unsatisfactory way of going about things I think. It was interesting working as a poll clerk on the EU (“BREXIT”) referendum of June, 2016. Many people who came into the polling station asked “is this the election where every vote counts?” Just for once they felt empowered. However, this is not the case in a General Election in the UK. Conservatives voting in a safe Labour area, Labour supporters voting in a Tory stronghold or Greens, Liberal Democrats or UKIP people voting just about anywhere, are all effectively disenfranchised.

My area of  East Cleveland in north-east England has traditionally been a safe Labour stronghold. However, in these BREXIT times, many previously Labour voters have turned to UKIP as they want the UK to leave the European Union. Thus they have deserted Labour, and now that the Conservatives have reinvented themselves as an anti EU party and copied UKIP’s ideas, many might even vote Tory!  Thus my area has now become a marginal constituency. The Conservatives recently had their candidate chosen as Mayor of Tees Valley, which was a big shock in such a traditional Labour area. So maybe my Labour vote will actually be important this time, even though I fear I will be disappointed with the overall election result. Apologies for not mentioning Scotland or Northern Ireland by the way as I don’t know enough about the issues affecting these parts of the UK.

General Elections reveal to me that our democracy is largely a sham. Smaller parties don’t get much of a look- in even though they may have many supporters spread throughout the country. The parties that gain power are those with large clusters of support in certain areas rather than having an even spread, The media is mainly weighted on the right side of the political spectrum. Instead of real news, we are fed a constant diet of propaganda, false fears, and dubious promises. ( Mr Trump would call it fake news.) People retreat into entrenched political positions ( including me) instead of engaging in genuinely open and respectful debate. (in fact, the PM, Mrs May has arrogantly refused to take part in any televised debate.) In polite society people mostly avoid serious political discussion, because, like religion, politics is a conversational hot-potato. Yes, General Election time is a horrible time for me, especially as I realize in my heart of hearts, that my utopian dream of a: just, compassionate and peace-loving society will not be realised. As polling day gets closer, the feeling of dread and depression grows ever stronger inside me!

Living in a Left Wing Bubble.

16 May

Well, I’m still recovering from the shock of a Conservative victory in the 2015 UK General Election. It was a severe jolt to the system for several reasons. First of all, the much vaunted opinion polls had consistently forecasted a hung parliament and the necessity for another coalition government to be cobbled together. That didn’t happen, so all that media hot- air about who would form an alliance with who turned out to be a waste of time. The polls were so consistent in telling this stalemate story that I was lulled into a false sense of security myself. Maybe we could get a “progressive”, left-leaning government after-all I hoped? But it all proved to be a cruel mirage. I heard that a full third of the total media election coverage had been spent on such hypothetical speculation about the consequences of a hung parliament. That time could have been more fruitfully spent on exploring the issues, manifestoes and policies of the parties in contention. It was a big mistake to try to second guess the actual voting public, who in the privacy of the polling booth, revealed more than they did to the pollsters
The second reason I was shocked by the election result was the realisation once again that I was living in a deeply conservative, right wing country. All those vast swathes of blue on the new political map of 2015 Britain have really upset me. I should have known better. Afterall I lived through the misery, frustration and heartache of the Thatcher years of the 1980s. Mass unemployment, jingoistic war, Trade Union bashing, class war ( almost), nuclear missiles, the privatisation of important public services — it was an endless nightmare. The fact that Margaret Thatcher’s governments were wildly popular at the ballot box in 3 elections, showed me just out of step with much of the rest of the nation I was. I hated it all and got deeply depressed. Now it’s happened again. A new right- wing Tory administration has been elected and this time there are no Liberal-Democrats to curb and restrain their more extreme policies. I fear for the future. One of friends said she cried. Once more I feel like a square peg in a round hole. I should be used to it I know, being a vegetarian in a predominantly meat- eating society. Sometimes I feel it’s as if I’m living in the wrong world! It’s impossible for me to grasp that so many people have voted for a party that has been responsible for a devastating programme of public spending cuts, seriously affecting the most vulnerable people in our society. To me it’s incomprehensible that many people have voluntarily opted for another damaging dose of austerity, but I have to accept that they did. It’s a bitter pill to swallow.
I know it’s dangerous for me to write a blog about politics. Along with religion, politics is such a hot potato of a subject. I know many people will disagree with my views and may even have stopped reading by this point. However, I think it’s important to stand up for what one believes in. It’s just too easy to sit on the fence. Politics is about the pursuit of power and how that power, once gained, is used. In a way, it’s the most important issue of all. Power can be used as a force for good and as a force for bad. It can be used for the benefit of all or just for the few. We are lucky that in the United Kingdom we have a democracy where in theory, the ordinary people can choose their rulers. Many nations around the world, those ruled by dictators or corrupt governments, do not have such a choice. Yet, this idea of choice is a bit of a con I think. Apparently 63% of the British people did not vote Conservative but still ended up with a Tory government controlling their lives for the next 5 years. This particularly applies to Scotland, North- East England, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Inner London where the vast majority voted SNP or Labour. The fault of course is with the “first past the post” voting system, where a party can garner a large number of votes but keep coming second or third in the constituencies, gaining no MPS. I’m no UKIP fan, far from it, but I think it unfair that a party that experienced such a significant surge in support, only ended up with a solitary MP. The same applies to the Green Party. The only fair way forward seems to be a Proportional Representation system where the amount of votes a party gets is properly reflected in the number of MPs they have in Parliament. Most other European countries have PR so it cannot be that outlandish an idea. However, the British people rejected PR in a referendum a couple of years ago. Maybe they were influenced by the largely right wing press or maybe it was just too complicated for many to understand. I voted for PR, finding myself in the usual position of being in the minority. Maybe it’s just my lot in life to be out of step.
I think of myself as a left winger, politically speaking. To me this means that I want to live in a compassionate, fair society where everyone looks out for everyone else. I belong to what is known as the “soft left” along with people like Ed Miliband, all of my friends and most of my family. “Birds of a feather flock together” as they say. I am one of those people regularly mocked as a “Guardian reader” by the largely right wing press. I’m proud to read The Guardian and its Sunday sister “The Observer.” I don’t see anything wrong in caring for others and wanting a more just society, where the strong protect the weak and vulnerable and the wealthy help the poor. That is my Utopia, my dream. Instead, in my opinion, we have the tragic dystopia of a right wing government that promotes individualism and an “I’m all right Jack”, attitude. It’s no coincidence that the 5 years of a Conservative led Coalition, resulted in the gap between the rich and the poor widening considerably and a massive and shameful rise in food banks. A caring society should look after its own without the need for charity. But the Tories, despite their claims that “we’re all in it together”, do not want a society where every one is cared for. Margaret Thatcher revealed her true colours when she declared that “there’s no such thing as society.” She was promoting rampant individualism where the strong prosper and the weak fall by the wayside. It was this era that gave birth to the idea that everyone in need of help from benefits is a “scrounger”. I know that not everyone on benefits is a genuine case and agree that the cheats need to be weeded out, but to tar everyone with the same brush is wrong. The right wing press are mainly responsible for this especially the Daily Mail and Daily Express with their drip drip of daily poison into the minds of their readers.
So I’m a left winger, which puts me out of step with much of the media and many of the voting public. I’m not “Hard Left” as I do not want a revolution or a working class dictatorship. That would be inconsistent with my belief in democracy and in human rights. Many of those on the left of the political spectrum are compassionate people not violent revolutionaries. We want a fairer, more equal society, not a Marxist/ Communist Dictatorship. I think we have seen that go horribly wrong in Russia, China and eastern Europe. All the soft left wants is a caring society which looks after it’s less fortunate members. I don’t see anything wrong in that and yet I consistently end up in the minority. It’s difficult for me to fathom.
Maybe my lack of understanding derives from the fact that I have been living in a left-wing bubble all my life. My parents and grandparents always voted Labour. I grew up in the Labour stronghold of Chesterfield in industrial North-east Derbyshire. Both my grandfathers took part in the 1926 General Strike. One was a coal miner, the other, a steel worker. My dad worked on the railways and voted Labour as, for a long time, this was regarded as the political Party that supported the working man ( and woman.) So you could say that voting Labour was in my DNA. I grew up being taught that Labour supported the ordinary working class people whereas the Tories represented the privileged and the well-off. I know that this is a very simplistic, divisive interpretation but that it what I was indoctrinated to believe. Largely speaking though, I still think this holds true. If you look at all the great social reforms of the last 2 centuries, most if not all have been brought in by the Liberal or Labour parties.( not the Tories) :- The Great Reform Act of 1832 (The Liberals), The Poor law Amendment Act, 1836 ( Liberals), Secret Ballot, 1860s ( Liberals), Old Age Pensions, early 1900s (Liberals), School meals, early 1900s ( Liberals), The National Health Service, 1945 ( Labour), The Welfare State, 1945 onwards ( Labour), Legalisation of Homosexuality, late 1960s (Labour), legalisation of abortion, late 1960s ( Labour), Equal pay act and other anti sex-discrimination legislation, early 1970s ( Labour), Abolition of Fox Hunting, early 2000s ( Labour) etc. I cannot think of one important piece of progressive social reform introduced by the Tories. David Cameron, to his credit, has recently presided over the legalisation of GAY marriage, but even that was when he was under the influence of the Liberal-Democrats and was against the objections of many of his own party. Even Cameron’s new, post election 2015 cabinet contains several people opposed to GAY marriage and who are pro hunting.
As he grew older my father moved more to the right. He started to read the Daily Mail and take on many of that paper’s views. He became anti-trade Union and anti comprehensive education even though I, his son, had been a victim of the 11 plus lottery. I had arguments with him about these things. When Tony Benn, a leading left winger, became the MP for Chesterfield, my dad couldn’t bring himself to vote for what the right-wing tabloids painted as “a red under the bed.” (To me Benn was a hero.) Even then though, dad couldn’t stomach voting Tory but switched to the Liberals instead, taking my mum with him. He too would have been shocked by this election if he had been still alive. All my children have grown up being anti-Conservative being brought up in the left wing bubble that our family has always existed in. Maybe we might vote Green , maybe up to the betrayal of 2010 we might vote Liberal, but never Conservative. Their mother shares my views as does my second wife. You see, we are all lefty Guardian readers and proud of it! So it comes as a massive shock to find that we are in the minority.
There has been an outpouring of shock and horror in many of the conversations I have been involved in since the election result. This sense of disbelief and outrage has also been aired big-time amongst my Facebook friends. People have been expressing disgust, signing petitions and preparing to go on anti-cuts protest marches. I think it’s important not to just have a knee jerk reaction. Anger and despair must be channelled into useful, constructive avenues. The 37% must be constantly reminded that their views are minority ones even though they are represented by the majority of MP’s. I will march, write letters, canvass my MP ( a Labour one) and sign constructive petitions. I am actively considering moving to Scotland! ( joke!) I also intend to join the human rights organisation “Liberty” as one of the first priorities of this new Conservative government is, unbelievably, to scrap the European Human Rights Act! I intend to come out of my left-wing bubble and engage the right-wingers in the real world in as many ways as I can positively can. Roll on 2020!