Before the Reform Act in 1832, Grimsby was a ‘Rotten Borough’. A few hundred male and propertied voters returned not one but two MPs. The pubs remained open twenty-four hours a day for the weeks ahead of each election so that the electors could be fuelled by the candidates and by the local magnates who sponsored them. The Freemen of Grimsby freely collected bribes, often from both sides. Formal petitions to Parliament to overturn the election result were the most common outcome. The Speaker of the House of Commons even once imprisoned the Borough’s Mayor for allowing false votes and disallowing legitimate ones, but I guess most Mayors simply got away with it. We had a reputation for being the most electorally corrupt corner of the Kingdom.
Things have got a little better since then, but I am still not sure my vote actually makes a ha’pence of difference today. In common with the majority of constituencies, it appears to be a ‘safe seat’ (although large swings are always possible to upset things). It is a strange thing that a few thousand party members in safe seats across the country are the ones who really select the majority of our MPs for us; in parliamentary elections we are denied the choice between candidates of the same party which would make the difference.
I have no control over either of the things which might affect whether my single vote ends up on the winning side anyway. I have no control over how many candidates stand in this constituency, nor over how many other people will turn out to vote. Either of these factors could alter whether my same single vote backs a successful candidate. If there was only one alternative candidate then he or she might well replace the apparently safe sitting MP, but if there are several candidates the way they divide the votes between them may be the real things which lets him in again. If disillusionment with politicians means turn-out slumps, or if it goes the other way and there is an unexpected revival in participation in democracy, then the pattern of votes might produce quite a different outcome.
So my single vote in a ‘first past the post’ system really has no power at all, and I do not think an English election has ever actually been determined by a single vote anyway. But I shall use my useless vote none the less. I always have, and I always will. I could not look English history or contemporary dictatorships in the eye if I did not.
I was still eighteen when I voted in the 1979 General Election. I was one of less than a third of the registered electors who voted in the first European elections a few weeks later (as was my younger brother on his eighteenth birthday). Three years later I also voted in the Beaconsfield By-election at which an A.C.L Blair (Labour) garnered 3886 votes and lost his deposit; I am told he had subsequent electoral success elsewhere. I have gone on voting ever since.
When I started voting there were still plenty of English women doing so who had reached their majority at a time when English women couldn’t vote at all, and who only eventually started being able to do so at the age of thirty. The majority of the population of South Africa couldn’t vote even then. Learning about and watching the cost of their struggles to gain the vote, I could hardly not use my own.
So the only thing is to decide is which way to cast my useless vote, and that is where I turn out to have the biggest problem. It is clearly my duty as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth to ask the candidates what policies they have to support the local corrupt financiers, sinners, prostitutes and immigrants and help them become responsible integrated members of society without exposing them to the judgemental or the vindictive. Strangely this doesn’t appear to be the demand placed on them by most others, so it is just as well that I already realise my vote isn’t going to make a difference anyway.
The article was written for the diocese's newspaper, which requested 'something about the election'. The picture was taken at Kirktown of Rayne, which is where we saw the geese.