As we move into the month of May 2016, we are nearly at the anniversary of the most recent general election. Four days from now, there will be a smorgasbord of other elections taking place: the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Police & Crime Commissioners, the Mayor of London and some 125 local councils. Additionally there will be two by-elections to the House of Commons – one in Ogmore, the other in Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough. Not long afterwards, of course, there will also be a UK-wide referendum on our membership of the European Union.
While many of these elections are relatively low-key affairs (certainly, it will be on Holyrood that media attention is focused), there is to me a special significance to the Police & Crime Commissioners because they represent the first occasion on which I am eligible to vote. There are four candidates standing and, whereas the original elections back in 2012 were notable for the large number of independent candidates (who actually won 12 positions compared to Labour’s 13 and the Conservatives’ 16), in my Humberside area this time there are only four, and they represent what are now established as England’s four main parties: Matthew Grove (Conservative and Unionist), Denis Healy (Liberal Democrat), Keith Hunter (Labour) and Michael Whitehead (United Kingdom Independence). The system used is the supplementary vote, which means I will be voting for as many candidates as I am turning down.
On the last Friday of April, I took part in a meeting with the honourable lady the member for Kingston upon Hull North. The subject of discussion was the upcoming EU referendum. A point which came up notably in the session was eligibility for voting – our delegation contained two students from outside the United Kingdom (but inside the European Union) who were not entitled to vote in the referendum. Several others were also barred for failure to attain the age of eighteen years. There had been much clamouring for the voting age to be lowered to sixteen, as had been done for the Scotland referendum, but these were thrice rejected by the House of Commons. Our guest was quite openly displeased about this fact, and stressed that it was vital for those of us who could vote to do so, lest our generation’s voice be politically ignored – she noted that pensioners had done quite well out of recent budgets because they tend to have the highest voting turnouts.
The honourable lady was quite insistent upon her party’s unity with regards to this issue: she explained that whereas in the previous referendum (She repeatedly said 1974, and none of us thought it pertinent to say it was actually 1975.) the Conservatives had been uniformly in favour of membership of the European Community and Labour divided, in this present era the situation had been reversed and that it was now the Conservatives who were thus fractured. I might have detected more than a grain of salt in this sentiment given that her current leader (The Right Honourable Jeremy Bernard Corbyn MP) was adamantly Euroskeptic for most of his life, and has only very recently (and rather meekly) proclaimed his support for our continued membership. There are, too, a handful of Labour officeholders campaigning to leave (Kate Hoey, Graham Stringer, Kelvin Hopkins and Roger Godsiff). Perhaps her position in the Shadow Foreign Office compels our visitor to gloss over this issue in public.
Returning to the area of youth engagement in politics, Mrs Johnson talked about the popularity of the President of the United States (His Excellency Barack Hussein Obama) – “He’s just so cool!” – and lamented, in her view that neither his charisma nor that of the Prime Minister of Canada (The Right Honourable Justin Pierre Trudeau MP PC), could be matched by our own statesmen, explicitly giving unfavourable status to Boris Johnson MP and Nigel Farage MEP. The point she was keen to make was that most elections – especially the EU referendum – affected the young more than the old (as they would not live to see out its full effects).
One memorable moment came when the honourable lady went around the table asking each of us our intention with regards to future studies and careers. Several people mentioned biology (which struck the elders in the room as unusual) and several others law (which did not, especially given the explanation that the college did not offer politics & government or economics). I said my pursuit was chemistry, which caused Mrs Johnson to remark that I could be the next Margaret Thatcher – though she moved quickly to eliminate any inferred suggestion of thinking me a Conservative.
At this point, perhaps far too late into this post, explain what was actually discussed about the European Union – that being the topic around which the meeting was centered. Ironically it is this component of the visit of which I have the least clarity in recollection. The points which stick out the most are that the EU has guaranteed decades of peace between European countries unseen before its development, that international cooperation is increasingly necessary for dealing with global threats and that the uncertainty of Britain’s existence following a Brexit would be dangerous to the economy. She did, though, confess to an agreement with the statement that few in Britain truly love the EU.
It remains to be seen if the fear of uncertainty or the gratitude for peace will ultimately prevail as the leading motive for remaining in the European Union. Indeed, that the Remain campaign should be victorious with either strategy cannot yet be confirmed. Most polling for this referendum has shown the balance shifting daily, such that a decisive victory for either camp seems improbable if not impossible. Already, many are stirring rumours of a second plebiscite to follow should the first attempt fail to yield the result they desire. Certainly, the United Kingdom’s constitutional identity is likely to be the subject of great debate for a long time to come.