It’s easy, you just check the right box.

by awindram

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With Eyjafjallajökull having temporarily brought flights between the UK and US to a complete stop, I assumed this must have created a backlog of undelivered airmail so great I would have little chance of receiving my postal vote for the general election. Even without the added complication of Eyjafjallajökull, in order to vote I needed both the Royal Mail and the United States Postal Service to be uncharacteristically efficient; something you tend think them incapable of when you keep taking delivery of Christmas cards well into Easter. So I was relieved this week to find an officious looking envelope, complete with Islington postmark, in my mail.

This’ll be easy, I think.

With a cup of coffee, I settle myself down by the kitchen table and open the envelope

Great. Just check the ballot, lick the envelope and send it back by return post.

Yeah, just need to find my pen and then put an X against…

…Hang on, who am I going to vote for?

Looking down at my ballot, a bookmark-esque slither of paper on which seven candidates’ names and addresses are carefully printed and set beside their party’s logo, I find myself wavering over what to do. This has never happened before. I’d always known precisely what I was going to do when I had my vote in front of me. But this time…I’ve dried up.

It’s not that I haven’t given thought to the matter. If anything, the opposite is true. I’d already been through the existential crisis of who I was casting my vote for, but this election there are two new factors coming into play that I’ve never had to deal with before when voting in a general election, and I’ve failed to anticipate how much they affect my thinking: 1) the fact that I am voting by post; 2) the fact that I am now an overseas voter.

That my postal vote is something of an issue has taken me by surprise.  Being in the US, the election already feels weird. I miss the sense of excitement that comes with a general election. That feeling of everyone sharing in a collective moment, one big soap opera that we’re all following. Something you discuss and complain about ad nauseum with colleagues and friends. Here it’s just a niche interest, something for the hard-core political junkies, and this has just made it all feel less real, not so tangible, a feeling heightened by having a postal vote and not having to go to my local polling station. I never before realised how important the more ritualistic elements of voting were to me.

I miss not walking to the polling station, talking to the volunteers working there, receiving my ballot and taking it to the slightly ramshackle booths or tables that have been set up for people to vote, putting an ‘X’ next to my chosen candidate, and then, best of all – that moment when you cast your vote, when you let go of that little slip of paper and let it fall into the ballot box. There’s something quasi-religious to the whole procedure: the booth is your confessional; dropping your ballot into the box your petition. 

Instead, I am sat with a coffee in my hand and internet access readily available. All those nagging, last second queries that you have in the voting booth, well here, I can take the time to think them through and recheck candidates’ policies and the sitting MP’s expense claims. There’s far too much time to ruminate. Maybe a blessing for some, not for me, I’m a terrible one for ruminating. Ask anyone. Heck, I could end up twittering the whole process (indeed, I did*).

And then we get to the greater responsibilities I feel obligated to consider as an overseas voter. What are the candidates’ positions on local issues, etc? This is something that I had never given much weight to in previous general elections. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate MPs who were attentive to the needs of their constituents and the problems that come up via MPs surgeries, but my thinking in general elections has – rightly or wrongly – always been dominated with voting in the government I wanted, or voting out a government I despised. Voting for the PM I wanted rather than the MP I needed. But now, with the guilt of  living 6,000 miles away from the constituency I am voting in, I want to get this right. I won’t be the one living with the negative consequences of an MP only using the constituency as a stepping stone for their own political career.

What should have been an easy case of just ticking a box is becoming a lot more complex.  

Personal disclosure:** my quandary is whether to go with Labour or the Lib Dems. My instinct and political leaning is always to go with Labour, but after 13 years in power, two wars and a financial crisis, it’s understandably hard to maintain enthusiasm. Equally, the Lib Dems have a more than good chance of taking Islington South and a strong showing by them could result in much-needed electoral reform – something I’d like to see. For once, and I can’t be the only Labour supporter feeling this in 2010, the Lib Dems are looking like a pretty attractive proposition.  

So there I still am, at the kitchen table, rereading articles and rechecking policies. Already an hour has gone past since I’d opened the envelope. The coffee now cold.

And my heart keeps saying Labour, but my head keeps reminding me about Ed Balls, Damian McBride and Derek Draper and what a shower of shits they’d been. I also know people who have had good experiences with Islington South’s incumbent MP, Emily Thornberry. Do I want to get rid of a good MP? No. But then what about  Bridget Fox, the Lib Dem candidate, would she proactive on local matters? I like her too. I think she’d be just as well-intentioned as Thornberry has been.

Still undecided, I take stock again, this time going through the full ballot. There’s all those odd parties you always find on your ballot, and who you’ve never before heard of. The English Democrats and Animals Count are the two this year. No Monster Raving Loony Party unfortunately (though there is the choice of the UKIP) and no Natural Law party. Whatever happened to those guys and their yoga-inspired lunacy?  Being not in the least bit bothered about a devolved English parliament, I dismiss the English Democrats from my thoughts. As for Animals Count…well, I like animals, I really do, but not enough to vote for a party that wants an NHS-style health care system in place for all animals – not a big priority for me, sorry. Besides, I’ve noticed on Bridget Fox’s blog that she’s very much a cat person so if I feel compassion for animals is a big plus (not a deciding factor by any means, but definitely makes me warm to a candidate) then she’s already got that covered. Attempts to find out whether Emily Thornberry is a cat/dog/horse/newt/ferret (delete as applicable) person prove inconclusive.

A google search of the Conservative candidate aptly brings up her entry in Debrett’s and not much more.

Getting ever more undecided the longer I research, I decide Ishould fill out a survey on www.whoshouldyouvotefor.com. Despite being in favour, for entirely selfish reasons, of a third runway at Heathrow, the survey tells me my views are most aligned with the Green party, followed by the Lib Dems and then Labour; everyone else, the site tells me, is anathema to me.

Hmm, I think about the career niche I could carve out for myself as the UK’s non-environmentally friendly Green politician. But any thought of voting for the Greens are eradicated when I learn that their candidate James Humphreys has written a number of psychological thrillers. Another thriller-writing MP to join the illustrious ranks of Jeffrey Archer, Edwina Currie, Douglas Hurd  and Iain Duncan-Smith?*** Must be the English literature graduate in me, but I’m not having that one on my conscience.

And so, despite all that rumination – all the policies and the personalities I’ve looked into and all the ridiculously mundane, unserious thoughts that always prey on me – it still comes down to that same choice: Labour or Lib Dem. The hours really have passed and I need to get a move on if I’m to make the afternoon post.

Labour or Lib Dem…Lib Dem or Labour… I think about it for a moment and then with great deliberation make an “X” next to my chosen name….

Posting my ballot

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*In fact, I twitter so much on the subject of Islington South that Bridget Fox, the Lib Dem candidate, retweets one of my tweets and starts following me. Her timing is just a few minutes off as she does this while I’m off walking to the post office with my vote in hand. I’m vain enough and shallow enough that if this had been before I voted there would have been no more deliberation between whether  to go with Labour or Lib Dems, it would have been Lib Dems all the way. I give her a lot of kudos for how she is using social media. Thornberry really isn’t on top of social media in comparison. With just under 500 votes seperating them from the last election the more savvy aproach Fox is taking to things such as twitter or blogging (the blog I found for Thornberry hasn’t  been updated since 2007) could make all the difference

**Erm, this is a blog – the whole bloody thing is a personal disclosure.

***What is with British politicians and the need to write thrillers? Seriously? There’s a fascinating thesis to be had from this.

Note: A friend of mine has written this piece, Fear and Loathing in South Islington, that’s well worth checking out if you want to know more about this marginal. Unlike this blog post, it’s neither navel-gazing nor waffly.

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