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Coffee House

The pleasures of voting

22 May 2014

3:46 PM

22 May 2014

3:46 PM

The rhetoric with which we are exhorted to vote is grand and sententious: do your civic duty; people died so that you could etc. etc. The rhetoric with which we’re exhorted not to vote is grander and more pretentious still. All of it makes voting sound like something between a chore and a possibly pointless low-level military mission, a matter of long queues and secrecy and mild, pervasive paranoia. In fact, for me at least, voting is a small but reliable pleasure.

The thing I miss most about my old flat in the middle of Peckham is the polling station that came with it. This was Rye Lane Baptist Chapel, quite the grandest frontage on the street – a columned neoclassical confection dating from the middle of the 19th century, though with a discreet inscription explaining that it was partially demolished by the Luftwaffe in 1943, and thanking God for its reconstruction. To vote, you went not up the steps and through the columns, but around the back to the church hall, which is the only place I’ve ever been to have both floor markings for a basketball court and honour boards on the wall for missionaries. It was a glimpse into a deep-rooted part of my local community that, as a timid agnostic, I’d never otherwise experience.

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If you want to see the places where civil society comes into being – in church halls and at school gates – you could do worse than look for polling-station signs. If you want to feel yourself part of civil society, I know of few moments better calculated to create that feeling than that of giving your name to a polite old lady, having it crossed off in the roll, and being sent on, no ID required and your polling card waved away, to help decide who runs your city or your country.

This may seem like a fluffy and solipsistic case for voting – probably because it is a fluffy and solipsistic case for voting. I have come to suspect, however, that it may be more durable than some of the more idealistic and intellectual arguments.

I cast my first few votes in a constituency that had a majority counted in hundreds, and the people-power arguments for voting felt not only generally true – they still do that – but personally relevant. At general elections, you could expect at least two canvassers outside the primary school keeping score; the leaflets laid thickly on the doormat. In the Lane ward of Southwark, parliamentary constituency Camberwell and Peckham, where this evening I shall call in at a less spectacular but still very pleasant nonconformist chapel, it is much harder to believe that your single vote might be decisive. Harriet Harman’s career will not in any perceptible way be shaped by me. But the pleasure of participating? That’s still something I feel, rather than having to think about. If more people talked about it, maybe more people would vote.

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