Written by Hannah Dunleavy

In The News

Can the spoils ever be the victor?

Hannah Dunleavy doesn’t like not voting. So what happens if she doesn’t approve of an election?

Photo by Slaunger, via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Slaunger, via Wikimedia Commons.

This week four years ago, I found myself in an unusual situation. There was an election and I didn’t want to vote.

I have always, always, always voted – in national, local and European elections – save for one occasion (the 1997 Labour landslide) when a change of address at precisely the wrong time meant I was unable to do so. I took some comfort from the fact my vote wouldn’t have counted, but I still felt I’d somehow let myself down.

I come from an unusual family, one that is political but in no uniform fashion. I grew up around people espousing the benefits of the Labour Party, the Tories, the Liberals and the SDP. Some voted for a party because they cared passionately about its ethos. Some did it for no other reason than that’s who they had always voted for. Others flitted from side to side, voting for personalities or specific local issues rather than party politics. But they all voted and stressed the importance of doing so.

My Nan – who voted… actually no, she wouldn’t want me to tell you – died three years before I reached the age of majority and four before I actually got the opportunity to vote. And yet, every time I place an X in that box I’m reminded of her lectures about how people like us – and by that I don’t just mean women – had endured long and bloody battle to be able to vote at all.

“Previously I’d given the idea of spoiled papers very little thought, assuming they were mostly the result of people being too dumb to understand a basic question or too infantile to avoid drawing a cock and balls on every piece of paper they come across.”

But where did that leave me, in 2012, when the Government decided to foist Police and Crime Commissioners on a country I thought couldn’t afford to pay their wages?

I was working for a local newspaper, which gave me two reasons to consider myself expert. I knew the subject matter: who the candidates were, what they stood for and what they thought their job would be if they won. I also knew that in an industry struggling in a harsh economic climate, making cuts at the bottom and adding people to the top was a recipe for disaster. And I could see no reason on earth why that would be any different for your average police officer than it would be for your average journalist.

On the morning of the election I stood in the battered smoking shelter outside work and aired my fears to a friend and colleague. And he said something no one had ever said to me before: “You could always spoil your paper.”

Previous to this I’d given the idea of spoiled papers very little thought, assuming they were mostly the result of people being too dumb to understand a basic question or too infantile to avoid drawing a cock and balls on every piece of paper they come across.

But the idea quickly spread and soon several of my colleagues had decided that, short of more extreme measures, this was the only way we could possibly register our disapproval and still feel we’d kept up the tradition of voting.

In the end, the staggeringly low turnout at that election – in Cambridge, where I live, it was just over 15 per cent – was what made the headlines. And yet, for me, the number of spoiled ballots – again, here it was 4.7 per cent – told a story in itself.

Yes, some people didn’t understand the form, that goes without saying, but bearing in mind this city generally turns out a spoil rate of 0.6 per cent, the fact that one in 22 people who bothered to turn up left a paper that couldn’t be counted, was a small-scale victory for common sense.

“Every time I place an X in that box I’m reminded of my Nan’s lectures about how people like us – and by that I don’t just mean women – had endured long and bloody battle to be able to vote at all.”

But what did it really achieve? Arguably nothing. Certainly I got to enjoy that warm rush of love for the place I lived in. I’d picked a city in which not voting was not enough. Sitting back and saying, “I don’t agree, maybe I’ll just watch The One Show instead” wasn’t an option. People wanted to register their displeasure and walked to the polling booths to do it. And not just where I lived, but all over the country, with Yorkshire reporting that in some areas up to 7 per cent of papers had been spoiled.

But in the long run, was it worth it? Am I now, four years later, facing another PCC election and exactly the same dilemma? Of course I am, along with the hundreds of other people who still believe that injecting party politics into a police force that is struggling to cope with budget cuts is not the way forward.

Will we all spoil our papers again tomorrow? I don’t know. I do know, as I live in a Red city surrounded by an ocean of Blue countryside, my vote won’t count either way.

Continuing to object to the roles of PCCs by spoiling my paper remains a viable alternative. But only in this election.

We still need a way to say “thanks but no thanks” in our other elections, be it what NOTA (None of the Above) are proposing or the option to Re-Open Nominations. If we’re offered a buffet of crap there needs to be a better option than going hungry.

@thatdunleavy

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Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.

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