On Election Day I stood outside numerous polling stations in my local area staging a silent protest to urge people to vote for the most vulnerable in society. Results were varied but I certainly grasped a profile of the electorate.
To give some context to my actions, I live in an area which since 2010 has voted strongly for the Conservatives but before was considered a Liberal Democrat safe-seat. It is predominantly old, white and middle class. The area has seen low levels of investment with police and hospitals, as well as social cuts over the last nine years of austerity. Homelessness has risen sharply and two food banks have taken residence.
I began the day at 7 a.m. as the polls opened at a small community hall and events space. People slowly dripped past with a varying level of reactions. The majority simply glanced at my sign and held their heads down staring at the floor, potentially guilty of what they may have indirectly caused to some members of society. Others came up and shook my hand, admiring my tenacity for change even during the rain, with one rather portly gentleman adorned in tweed saying I was doing the ‘Lord’s work’. Potentially a slight overstatement, but I thanked him all the same. Then come around 8 a.m. and the returning officer came out and asked me about my protest, stating that I shouldn’t be demonstrating. She took me inside and phoned the electoral commission who said I should be removed. And so, although outside the polling station itself and not causing any harassment to voters, I was escorted off the premises and told not to return — not even to the car park.
Although I complied, I felt as though certain elements of democratic freedoms were being eroded before my very eyes. It was saddening to see that the values of freedom of speech and to assemble were simply not permitted even if they were carried out in a passive manner. Furthermore, the refusal to acknowledge what was written on the placard by many individuals made me feel as though we have entered an age where people refuse to be questioned and challenged about their political beliefs, opinions and knowledge.
From around 4:30 p.m. I set out again to another polling station; the Town Hall. Having stood there for around three hours, my picture of the electorate and society became far more wholesome. I had both the experiences of aggression towards me but also random but heart-warming kindness. Multiple individuals spat at me, never hitting my face but landing in front. The disdain these people had for those unwilling to conform to their beliefs, I found deeply depressing. This can also be seen in the UK’s fairly toxic media and online scene of political commentary which consistently demonises, provokes and vilifies both politicians and people themselves. Since the 2016 EU referendum we’ve seen consistently more hate crime against minorities and immigrants, and Twitter has devolved into a verbal shouting arena of different groups abusing each other’s position.
However, the inverse was also true. I witnessed some of the greatest levels of kindness from the general public I’ve ever been a recipient of. The one that touched me most was a group of school children, no older than 15, sitting down to have a discussion of mutual understanding and hope with me. Even though we didn’t align politically on everything, a consensus was reached that things had to change to make life better for all. They later went out to buy some warm drinks and food for me due to the cold weather and stated that what I was doing was ‘essential for the bettering of public discourse’. This gave me a sense of hope that not only is our youth engaged and happy to participate in politics, contrary to what the media would like you to believe, but are also kind, analytical and caring people wishing for a better country for everyone.
Another moment which surprised me was the local Conservative counter at the station coming out and saying how she admired me for doing what I was doing. Although I could not differ more with her ideologically and was performing this protest simply to unseat her party, it was something which I though was rare for a time in which our country seems more divided than ever.
Overall, although this sample was conducted in an area which would fill the quintessential criteria for ‘Little England’, I have witnessed how our society is both divided but, more importantly, also kind and aware. Many were not blind to the blight of issues which have been building for years and understood the need for a societal shift to address them. Of course, others ignored or cast-off the idea that I was even telling the truth. But a sense of hope was also instilled within me for the younger generation of this country. One that is more prone to understanding, compassion and objectivity.
There is still a way to go to heal the wounds and divisions the referendum has caused, but the work has already begun and must continue.