Ruth Campbell from Comas believes the referendum is engaging the most vulnerable in our society for the first time ever
Homeless recovering addicts looking forward to voting? I’d have put money on this being a fantasy before the referendum started looming. But in the last few weeks we have seen community members coming in to print off a pile of voter registration forms to take back to their hostels, signing up their mates to make sure they can all have their say.
There is an air of excitement, a feeling that these people want to be part of a historic moment.
In 30 years of working in communities and with people who feel disenfranchised, this is the first time I have detected real interest rather than the apathy and cynicism that we know has lowered election turnout over the years.
The two dimensions of yes or no seem much more engaging to the people involved in our projects than the task of trying to choose between political parties whose debates have turned people off and, to many of our community members, appear irrelevant to their own lives.
This is the first time I have detected real interest rather than the apathy we know has lowered election turnout over the years
Whatever happens on 18 September the real task we need to focus on is how we can sustain the level of grassroots interest in participation that we are seeing today. As a charity we believe that empowering people to influence what happens day-to-day in local authorities and in government is an essential part of improving services, informing spending and shaping communities.
The people we work with are generally not interested in politics. Through Comas’ work they regularly meet politicians at local and national level, and do their best to share their life experiences in ways which influence policy. They rarely bother to ask which party the politician represents, they just want decisions to be made based on the needs of real people like themselves.
This suggests to me that the people we work with are motivated to register to vote now because they believe it can influence the future of Scotland, and affect their own futures, in ways that voting in elections does not. It has captured their imagination and tapped into an emotional level that elections have failed to reach. I’m delighted that people who so often feel excluded from society want to be part of something. I just hope that politicians learn something from the experience too.
It disappoints me that registering to vote is less than straightforward for many vulnerable people who are homeless, have mental health problems or are on remand. It took me several different internet searches to track down the “local connection” form online that homeless people need to register to vote. It should be simpler than that, so I will undertake to make it simpler than that, for the people we work with – I’ll be handing out voter registration forms to everyone who wants one.
To make the right to vote something you work for, alongside supporting community members in other ways, and if empowerment is more than rhetoric to you, bring the right to vote alive.
Start the citizenship conversation and keep it going beyond September. Enjoy people’s interest in the referendum and strive to maintain it. This interest can become the roots of a new kind of citizenship if we nurture it.
Ruth Campbell is chief executive of Comas, an Edinburgh-based charity working with people with enduring health, mental health and social problems.
This is part of a series of TFN articles that focus on the #Missingmillion people who are not intending to vote in the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September.