Citizen action for democracy: a recent experience

Camilla Child of The Tavistock Institute writes about a recent experience of citizen action for democracy in this guest blog post for Demsoc. You can find her on Twitter @CamillaChild

At the last election, the newly created Hampstead and Kilburn constituency was a closely contested three-way marginal. Labour’s Glenda Jackson had a majority of 42 votes over the Conservative candidate, and the Liberal Democrat was only 841 votes behind her as well. This makes it both the most marginal seat in England (and third in the UK) and the closest three-way marginal in the UK parliament. The constituency itself is located mostly within the London Borough of Camden with just three of Brent’s wards within the boundary. I live in one of these.

In my opinion, as an active voter keen to encourage democracy, attention to process and trust in it is of utmost importance. Making sure that voting arrangements are clear and simple so that everyone understands who is doing what, where and how, is key to this. Important everywhere, but especially so where the vote is likely to be so close. I imagine no Returning Office wants to be pulled up on a technicality. So when we received our polling cards marked with the London Borough of Camden I wondered if it might cause some confusion. Within no time a couple of neighbours mentioned it to me on the street and wondered if there was a mistake. We are Brent residents after all. Together we thought it might put off the many people already mistrustful of local democracy, as well as providing a reason not to go, for those wavering about bothering to vote.

As I had already promised my student daughter I would check on her postal vote, I phoned up Camden electoral services. For that, they said, I had to phone up Brent electoral services as they were in charge of Brent postal votes. But, I said, I thought you were in charge of everything and I mentioned the poll card. That person said he had already received several calls from Brent people querying it, and no, it wasn’t just me. Together we also agreed the website wasn’t particularly clear. I phoned Brent and the operator said the same, that she had already had plenty of queries and would I please mind mentioning it to the electoral services in Brent who she put me on to.

So I wrote an email to Camden and Brent and contacted one of the party agents. I suggested greater clarity on the website, and a letter sent to everyone in the three Brent wards to clarify that Camden is responsible for running the election for our constituency. After all, what harm could it do? And it might even make the difference to the election result, who knows?

Only Camden replied to say they thought it was reasonably clear and it had been like this last time we voted. Yes, I replied, but we didn’t know then just how close it would be.

The next day though, a different response came through. An email from the Principal Electoral Services Officer saying that a letter to everyone in the Brent wards would be sent to explain the situation. And this morning it arrived!

A small victory for both for democracy and citizen action.  And well done to Camden Council for listening and taking action.