1. Governance
May 14, 2018

Here’s why canal boat dwellers find it so hard to vote

By Charlie Lawrence

‘Not my problem’. This was, in essence, the response received by worried boat owners when they reached out to Bethnal Green & Bow MP Rushnara Ali following a spike in crime along east London’s canals. The boaters had contacted Ali after one particularly bad night when eight of the forty-odd boats moored along Victoria Park were broken into, but they struggled to foster much sympathy.

“Unfortunately, per strict parliamentary protocol, Members of Parliament may only make enquiries on behalf of those living within their constituency.”

Forced to move every two weeks, boaters rarely have a postal address in the area they are moored; instead usually having their post delivered to places of work or to long suffering friends. This means that, in the slightly Kafkaesque logic of parliamentary democracy, should boaters run into trouble, MPs can’t offer much help – despite them technically living in the constituency, albeit only temporarily. Although the postal problem can be resolved with an arbitrary local Amazon Locker, it highlights the issue of representation for communities not fixed to a particular area.

Registering to vote is a challenge but not one insurmountable. For anyone with no fixed address, whether they are homeless, living in a boat or part of one of the larger travelling communities, a ‘declaration of local connection’ must be filled out. As you’d expect from the name, this shows the electoral services that an individual has a particular affiliation with a constituency and therefore is warranted to vote as part of that area.

Engagement is another problem entirely. In 2012, a representative for Roma Gypsies in the south of England estimated that as few as 10 per cent of Gypsies or Irish Travellers vote. As with most demographics that have a tendency to avoid the ballot boxes, politicians give little concern for their problems or worse, use them as a target to gain votes.

Campaigns like Operation Traveller Vote are trying to turn this around. As you would expect for the name, the movement aims to encourage traveller communities to register to vote and then turn up on the day. They hope politicians may actually listen to the traveller communities should the 350,000 members around the UK start flexing their democratic muscles.

And although it’s hard to know whether it bears any relation to such campaigns, it’s worth noting that last year’s Labour Manifesto pledged to protect the rights of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

Having no fixed address may make it more difficult to engage democratically, but it’s not impossible. Far trickier is encouraging such communities to vote in a system that has long ignored them. But as soon as political parties start engaging directly in a positive way, just as Labour has begun to do, then there’s no doubt that those who are usually constantly moving will be increasingly heading for the polling stations.


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