Hearing Voices – Some Thoughts on Suffrage

I was born on 10 October 1960, and my first home was 47 North Hill, Colchester, Essex. Eighty-seven years earlier, over the road, at number 12, the women of Colchester had organised themselves to send the first ever suffragette petition to Parliament. Just thirty-two years before my birth, the Conservative government had passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act giving the vote to all women over the age of 21. From an early age, it was made clear to me how fortunate I was to have this right, and so it was my duty to exercise it when the time came. In the meantime, it was ‘put up or shut up’ – I was told my voice mattered and to use it. If ever I came home from school to complain about a perceived injustice, my parents would ask me what I’d done to right the wrong, calm me down, dust me off, turn me right back round to go in and sort it out. I was left in no doubt. Want to see a change? Speak up.

Whatever they were doing, my parents made a point of getting to the polling station, no matter the weather, their health or their mood. We always discussed politics, we never discussed parties and it wasn’t until I was well into my twenties that I realised how my parents voted. indeed, it was with some pride that I realised all four of us (both my parents, my sister and I) had voted differently. My first ever General Election was THAT election – you know, the one that changed Britain forever, in May 1979. I went with my father to the polling station, almost the last voters there, squeezing in just before 10 pm. I put my X in the box, folded my voting paper, posted it in the ballot box, and hugged Dad in the knowledge of duty done. I went home for a cup of cocoa and back to ‘A’ level examination revision. My parents had been denied the chance for a university education, so I would go because I could. Once at university, fascinated by the mechanics of elections, I joined the Standing Orders Committee. I was never interested in running for office myself, but loved working behind the scenes and seeing the whole process run smoothly.

We all have a voice and we all need to use it – as Grandad used to say “use it or lose it’ – his generation knew exactly what that meant. Of course, there’s still a long way for us all to go, nationally and internationally. This year, The Women’s Equality Party set up its stall in the UK, to promote that journey; because a fairer society is a better society. While I’ve travelled and spent time living abroad, I’ve listened to others’ voting stories and heard other voices – from the Sicilian given pasta and shoes for his family, by the priest outside the polling station, for casting his vote wisely; to the Syrian wearing a hijab as a silent, but highly visible, protest vote against the hegemony her parents had no choice but to support. I used my voice where I could, and was excited to be able to vote in the European elections while living in Greece some years ago – especially as I was offered choices way beyond my wildest ballot paper fantasies back in England. What those really translated into was, of course, a different matter. But I had a voice, I spoke and I was heard.

Now, there’s a General Election being held tomorrow in the United Kingdom. On March 20 I discovered from the Honorary British Vice-Consulate here in Rhodes that I was entitled to a postal vote. That day I completed an online form and, by April 14, received a letter from Colchester Borough Council acknowledging my registration as an overseas voter. I asked how I should proceed and my options were explained to me. I chose a postal vote and duly completed the next form and sent it off. My postal vote package arrived on 29 April, including all documents apart from the ballot paper. I asked what I should do and was sent a link by email to a document to print out, complete and post back with my incomplete postal voting package. I explained that there was no time (post generally takes 5 – 7 days from the UK to Rhodes, and that’s without Bank Holidays) and was then told a replacement voting package had been put in the mail for me that day. It was also suggested to me that proxy voting might suit me better in future as the post was unreliable. I replied that the postal service was not the issue.

Yesterday, two ballot papers arrived for me – each in a separate package, posted on consecutive days, one of which packages was (again) incomplete. I put my X in a box on the ballot paper from the complete package and then set about finding someone flying to the UK from Rhodes in the following 24 hours who would be able to carry and post it for me in the UK. Someone duly found, I carried my envelope down a medieval alley to a building originally constructed by Knights Hospitaller and handed it over to an Easyjet passenger flying to Gatwick on Wednesday. This kind soul had worked out timings for me; he’d be home by 5pm, he lived a minute’s walk from a post box, the last collection was at 7.30pm. My vote needs to reach Colchester by 10pm on Thursday. My voice may yet be heard, my will may yet be done.

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