May 012010

The other night, I encountered* a homeless man named Ian chilling on the sidewalk outside a branch of NatWest with his bull terrier, Tyson. He greeted me in friendly fashion as I walked up and did not ask for my spare change.

This may sound ridiculous, or condescending, or both, but that fact had me asking him if I could give him some money – I didn’t want to offend his pride. He said yes rather appreciatively, so I gave him all the cash I had on me, and as I was in no hurry to be anywhere, I sat down next to him for a bit of a chat.

We talked for a while about Tyson and the fact that there are no bad dogs, only bad owners. Ian clearly loved his dog, and Tyson was as good-natured a pet as I’ve ever encountered. He sniffed my hand for a bit, then came over to lean on me in that way dogs do so I could rub his back.

Our conversation eventually led to how this man had ended up with two blankets outside of the NatWest, and it was a sorry tale indeed. He had lost his council home when his wife had left with their son – single men are automatically bumped to the bottom of the social housing queue. He was turned away from several shelters – homeless people without drugs or drink problems are at the bottom of shelters’ priority list. Unable to find a legitimate place to sleep with the fur throw pillows amazon, he had taken to spending his nights in car parks and loading docks when he couldn’t beg enough during the day to hire a spot in a hostel, though even that was difficult because most of the hostels don’t allow dogs. When he did manage to beg sufficiently during the day, the police sometimes arrested him for begging, and he was forced to spend his takings on court fines.

That day, he told me, he’d been trying to acquire enough money to buy a sleeping bag – though not by begging, which was why he hadn’t asked me for my change. He was hoping for people’s unprompted generosity, and hampered by the fact that he couldn’t explain his need, for fear of being arrested, unless somebody actually asked him.

‘What about work?’ I asked him.

‘I’m looking,’ he answered, ‘but I don’t have an address. Nobody wants to hire someone who can’t even give a shelter as their address.’

‘What a perverse situation,’ I said, and he nodded in agreement. ‘But there’s an election on,’ I added, aware this was small comfort. ‘You have the vote, you can try to vote for people who will fix that stuff.’

‘I can’t,’ said Ian. ‘You can’t vote if you don’t have an address. And I wouldn’t vote for any of them anyway. I’m tired of politicians saying they help people when all they ever do is make things worse.’

We talked for a little while longer, and I told him I wished there were more I could have done for him. Even as I said it, I was aware of how feeble that statement was. I could have given him more money – enough for him to buy a sleeping bag the next day. Enough to make him comfortable for food and drink for a few days at least, provided nobody robbed him in the night. Had we been anywhere near a shop, I would have bought him some food myself there and then, as I’ve done for other homeless people. And all of that would have helped at least a little bit.

But it wouldn’t have gotten him into a shelter, or found him a job, or protected him from police who find it useful to arrest beggars. And it certainly wouldn’t have restored the franchise to him, the franchise which every British person treats as a natural right. This most vulnerable of individuals, because he has no home, is denied even the tiniest bit of power the vote brings with it. That vote, which so many people have but choose not to exercise, is denied to Ian and people like him because they have no home.

I know he said he probably wouldn’t have used it anyway. I’m also aware that he could have been lying to me through his teeth about his circumstances (though for what it’s worth, I don’t think he was). But even in the midst of all the perverse incentives this man was facing, his disenfranchisement struck me as the most significant. There are hundreds of thousands of homeless British people. Presumably many of those are prevented from exercising this most basic privilege of citizenship.

People told me afterward that the electoral register is linked to addresses to prevent voter fraud. I’m sure that works really well, what with people who have more than one address getting more than one vote. Nevertheless, I find I can’t really countenance a system of electoral fraud prevention that effectively restricts the suffrage of a giant bunch of British citizens.

Can anybody explain to me how this squares with the whole ‘social justice’ thing? Does anybody know if the electoral commission, or any of the parties, have a plan to fix this, or even consider it an issue?

Or is the British body politic perfectly happy with this property-based ‘universal’ suffrage?**

*In Leicester. I swear.

**Please note that I am not making an argument about who, objectively, should have the vote, or whether it should indeed be somehow rooted in property or other kinds of economic activity.

UPDATE: RC informs me that homeless citizens can register to vote by making a ‘declaration of local connection’ at their local Electoral Registration Office. This seems reasonable, but it is clearly not common knowledge amongst the homeless. Also, it occurs to me that people who are eligible to vote but aren’t registered can be liable for a £1000 fine.

  12 Responses to “Universal suffrage?”

  1. “Or is the British body politic perfectly happy with this property-based ‘universal’ suffrage?”

    Not happy. Not unhappy. Just…disinterested, I suspect. I’ve certainly never, ever seen anyone campaign on it. Never seen it mentioned on ‘CiF’, either, despite their enthusiasm for votes for prisoners…

  2. I haven’t got a UK address and haven’t had for a few years now, and for all anyone there knows I’m using a mate’s address for any mail coming to me from there (I highly doubt anyone would check). What goes on in the UK now affects me only as much as I feel like letting it, while Ian is trapped in a life on the streets there. Yet I can still vote for a candidate ten thousand miles away and Ian can’t. I suppose nobody said it had to be just or fair and therefore it isn’t. Or as JuliaM says, just not enough people who can do anything about it are remotely interested in doing so.

    Sadly I’ve already instructed my proxy on what to put on my ballot paper and with no LPUK or apparently libertarian candidate I’ve substituted the usual X for a lot of other letters, predominately Fs. It’s the first time since I’ve had the vote that I’ve done this, and despite this being my form of a protest vote at the poor alternatives on offer I now feel guilty for having wasted a vote when the Ians of Britain are disenfranchised. I wouldn’t be surprised if voting among the millions of expat Brits who are entitled to vote is pretty low. Millions of unused votes perhaps? Way too late now but what if there was a system of ‘vote-buddies’? What if I could have made it known that I had no interest in using my vote but was prepared to cast it on behalf of a disenfranchised person like Ian? I can think of a couple of problems off the top of my head – how would I know they really were disenfranchised and how would they know I really would vote for them, which might well come down to trust. And there’d be the practical problems like the homeless finding it hard to communicate with potential ‘vote-buddies’. But is there any other reason why not? Is there a law against it, for example?

    • I don’t think you should feel guilty about ‘wasting’ a vote. It’s yours to use how you wish, and even choosing not to vote is a legitimate democratic action. But your vote-buddy idea is a good one. I know some Americans/Canadians swap votes. I don’t think there are any laws against it; your reasons for voting a particular way don’t have to conform to any standard except that of being unpaid-for.

      • There’s actually a movement to give your UK vote to a Third World candidate – the usual ‘we are the world’ idealistic make-a-pointless-point student tosspottery – which is, believe it or not, perfectly legal.

        Perhaps instead of posturing over who is more sympathetic to ‘world issues’, one of these airheads would like to give it to Ian instead?

      • Ah, well, I never claimed my feeling of guilt was rational, did I? :-) As for the choice not to vote being a legitimate democratic action you’re quite right, but there’ll be elections here in Oz later this year – try telling that to people here where everyone is forced to vote. I don’t know how they deal with it but as far as I know that includes the homeless and obviously there are Aboriginal groups living traditional lifestyles, or as close as they going to get in 2010, and who therefore don’t have an address as such. From one extreme to the other, eh?

  3. Here’s the story that I saw about this movement.

    • I should be surprised, but I’m not. I suppose it makes as much sense as many people’s reasons for voting the way they do; and if it makes Fanny and her friends feel better about themselves, well, it’s cheaper than a course of therapy. “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”

  4. I hope that you don’t mind – I have shown your entry on my blog – properly accredited and cross-referenced to you.
    Many thanks.
    PS. If you’re not happy, please let me know and I shall delete it forthwith.

  5. More like universal SUFFERING, amirite?



    *Raises hand for high five*

    …. guys?

  6. With regards issue of being fined £1000 for not registering. I’ve had several letters from my local council over the last 9 months or so since I moved into this address informing me that I can be fined if I don’t register. I’ve ignored every one of them and they still haven’t sent me a bill. I wonder if this law is ever enforced? Obviously if and when they do send me a fine it’ll go straight in the bin with the rest of their junk mail.

  7. Are you from Leicester? During the recent cold spell, I remember walking through the deserted city centre whilst it was snowing. There were a few poor bastards wandering about, utterly frozen to the bone.

    And yet what to do about it?

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