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Last Updated: 05/11/2010
The Sorry State of British Democracy
Patricia Rich

Patricia Rich gives a first hand account of the spiritless British elections, which seem all the more bland in comparison to the vibrant 2009 democratic election in El Salvador, which Rich participated in as an international observer.

I woke up on the morning of Thursday 6th with all the excitement and anticipation that you might expect of a politics enthusiast or maybe anyone who, for the first time in five years, had the opportunity to directly participate in their democratic process. I thought that I might not be alone in my interest and expectancy, somewhat naïvely I got up early, donned my camera and took to the streets to document my Election Day. I was ready to be canvassed at train stations in central London, to feel the election fever resonating through the populous as we together made our way to work on this not so ordinary day. I arrived at work after an hour a half, having travelled through two of the capital’s busiest stations without seeing any sign that this day held any meaning beyond your average Thursday; I was disappointed.

To be fair I was expecting to be a little bit disappointed by the lack of overt interest in the electoral process, seeing as the last election I was involved in was the celebration of democracy that was El Salvador’s 2009 presidential election. While the Central American democracy erupted into an all singing, all dancing, all campaigning, country clad in party colours, proud and enthusiastic, the UK, it seemed to me, stoically continued with their everyday, and rather than celebrating the democratic process, and took little interest beyond the moment they spent in the polling booths.

So I thought that the polling station would be the one place that I would find the election fever that I was seeking. I expected to find the party faithful polling voters and making their final pleas for voters to place their x in the ‘correct’ box. But alas I was to be disappointed again. The church hall-come polling station was empty apart from the four officials, not a rosette in sight. Again another stark difference that England, home to the self-righteously named ‘mother of all parliaments’, showed to the young democracy of El Salvador. Where large polling stations coped with a plethora of voters and within them contained all the excitement, jubilation, fear and devastation of Election Day, my polling station was a mundane reminder that it is not just individuals but our democracy itself which is apathetic.

A further reminder of the sorry state of British democracy was the pitiful administration of the process, needing no identification and not even a polling card I could have easily have cast my vote twice, and indeed I met one person who voted three times with different polling cards, using those of friends who were not in the country. No indelible ink was used on fingers – not only allowing for multiple voting but missing the opportunity to stain pride on the thumbs or fingers of those who had taken part in democracy.

I spent my election evening with other political enthusiasts, and with those who, like me, were hoping that the Conservatives would not win the right to government. I was safely surrounded by those who could share in my excitement of the announcement of marginal constituencies and Jackie Smith losing her seat. And as we watched the BBC’s overly technical, often quirky, rolling coverage, my criticisms grew. Polling stations in Liverpool ran out of ballot papers. Yes in a country which sniffs at the democratic processes of the so-called ‘Third World’ the administrators of the general election hadn’t printed enough pieces of paper for everyone who wanted to vote. Polling stations in Hackney and Manchester couldn’t cope with the queues of people and locked the doors on hundreds who wanted to cast their ballot. The administration of the election failed too many people.

There were reports of people voting on tables with covers not high enough to stop people looking over and I have not heard from a single place where people voted with curtains to block the gaze of others.

The results, at my time of writing, are still not clear. The hung parliament, however, gives me hope that in the coming months we could have the opportunity to vote for a representative electoral system, that administrators will learn their lessons about ballot papers and polling booths, and that we will have the chance to vote in a parliament that is more diverse and therefore more reflective of British society.

No this was not a celebration of democracy, but another pitiful example of how far the UK has to go before it can claim its parliament is representative and freely and fairly elected. The days and weeks to come will give us a result. I for one hope that the next time I write about a general election in my country, it will be one I can be proud of.

Patricia Rich holds an MA in International Peace Studies from the Universtiy for Peace.