First time voters, like myself, are getting a bit of a raw deal. Faced with a Labour party in power for three much-maligned terms, a Conservative party lead by an unauthentic David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats (whose principle problem is that they seek election on the basis of being the “Liberal Democrats”) there is easily an argument to be made out of not voting.
Of course, these arguments are rubbish. To pillory a government for not representing the opinions of their electorate, only to say “well, I can’t be bothered” come Election Day seems disingenuous. 18-25 year-olds are the group most prone to not fulfilling their democratic right. 34 per cent of us trudged to the polling stations in the last election and the expenses scandal, coupled with an antipathy towards politicians in general, doesn’t seem the ideal breeding ground for enthusing a new generation of voters. Keeping young people, especially the struggling white working-class, from voting BNP remains a critical issue.
These worries mask a substantial change in young people in general. If the Young Ones were around today, they wouldn’t be smashing up the studios of University Challenge. They’d be discussing cheats for the new Grand Theft Auto game or exchanging N-Dubz ringtones. It is very rare, outside of radical universities, that you will see a young person engaging meaningfully with politics, although not through lack of trying.
My favourite recent attempt to engage with young voters came from BBC3 with ‘Young Person’s Question Time’. The show bristled with patronising panellists calling the audience “you guys” with every passing breath and it signified everything wrong with the media’s attempt to bring younger voters into the democratic arena. It was the televisual equivalent of Gordon Brown telling the nation’s yoof that he woke up to the Arctic Monkeys. Does Sarah Brown look good on the dancefloor? Are the inevitable spending cuts his favourite worst nightmare?
Counter-productively, pop singer Jamelia – only appearing on the show to add the celebrity element – said she wasn’t sure if voting was the right way to make a statement about what society we wish to live in. Jarvis Cocker’s appearance on the proper, grown up version of Question Time came to mind as she told the audience not to vote, the very issue the show was trying to tackle.
The former Pulp singer had clearly just got off the Eurostar from his French flat, meaning that when he was asked for his opinion on the week’s events, all he could do was say “well, I haven’t heard about this, but it seems to me that…” before rambling inconsequentially for a few minutes until David Dimbleby moved the conversation on.
How do politicians and the media make sure young people are engaged with politics? Could the chronic lack of interest in the political landscape be a permanent feature of our divided politics? He may not have all the answers, but this is where Hratche Koundarjian enters the fray.
As Labour Party candidate for the Lewes, constituency Hratche offers several ways to get people – not just young people, but the whole community – involved with decision-making and building ties once more between the public’s elected representatives and the issues that affect people from the bottom up.
Deciding that an interview ‘on-the-job’ would be wholly more desirable than a sit down chat in a stuffy office with a packet of Hob Nobs and a Dictaphone in the corner, we meet for the first time to deliver leaflets. My local Conservative MP for Eastbourne lives 60 miles away in Kent, so to hear that Hratche lives in Newhaven, right at the heart of his constituency, makes his claim to understand local issues all the more convincing.
Norman Baker – the serving MP – there is no denying, has served his Lewes constituents well. But that sentence has a double meaning. Yes, he has served his Lewes constituents well, raising the East Sussex county town’s profile considerably. But what about the 50,000 plus voters who don’t belong in the county town?
This is one of Hratche’s key campaigning areas. “This constituency isn’t all about Lewes. It runs through Newhaven, Seaford and Polegate as well”. As he points out, Seaford is a much larger town than Lewes but it is criminally overlooked. “It probably isn’t quite as strong as the word suggests, but there is a certain amount of resentment,” he says, discussing the ways in which Seaford and Newhaven are barely noticed above their larger-than-life county partners.
The campaign leaflets that we are helping deliver attempt to hammer this point home. In this Parliament, running from 2005, Baker has mentioned Seaford in only nine debates. Considering he is Liberal Democrat Transport Secretary, entailing he speaks more often than a backbencher (not that the Lib Dems have many backbenchers; it was once said that the Liberals could share a taxi to the Houses of Commons each morning) this seems absent-minded at best, if not totally unrepresentative. For every time Seaford is mentioned, Lewes is mentioned four times (and this excludes references to the constituency as a whole, which is known as ‘Lewes’).
Hratche hopes a campaign promise to change the name of the constituency to ‘Lewes, Seaford and Newhaven’ bears return at the final count when the election takes place in a few weeks time. Interestingly, he displays some of the moral integrity and non-partisanship that hasn’t been evident in the American Republican Party during the debates about healthcare.
“Vote for me or not, the issues I am raising are important and should be taken seriously. Hopefully I can use this campaign as an opportunity to put forward arguments for change”. Needless to say, this tactic hopes to give Labour a more visible presence in the constituency as well as fighting for worthwhile change that should occur whichever party is in charge.
The changing of the constituency name is far from his only plans. He is most enthusiastic when discussing Newhaven’s West Beach, the only sandy beach in the area. “In the 1980s, Thatcher’s government told councils to sell off assets. This led to East Sussex selling the beach to a private company”.
In 2008, Newhaven Port Properties realised the beach could be a liability, leading to its complete closure. This, Hratche argues, is a completely unnecessary impediment on Newhaven’s need to garner tourists during the summer. He proposed various options to keep the beach in public use, the most sensible of which seems to be that the local council takes back control and liability during the summer months (hopefully regaining any outlay through parking fees and attraction). The campaign was gaining traction, with the BBC interested, having already covered the story a few years ago.
Via the medium of a Village Green Application – which wants to designate the beach as a village green, rather brilliantly – campaigners hope the beach can open once more. Still unsatisfied, Hratche took the campaign a step further, setting up a website dedicated to e-mailing Newhaven Port Properties, letting them know about the “bad feeling” being created from their actions. This direct action led to people from all over the country getting involved, including people from as far afield as Germany and Canada.
Talking to Conservative candidate Jason Sugarman (who may hold influence over the Conservative-controlled council in charge of the final decision regarding the Village Green Application), Hratche said he expressed an interest in pursuing the campaign. I must confess, such co-operation amid the usual kick and scramble of local political skirmishes is admirable, but arguably necessary for a third-party candidate. When I ask if these acts of mutual understanding had been reciprocated, his knowing look said it all.
No-one, not even the most hardened Labour supporter could say Hratche has an easy task. He has considerable experience in charity work and performs his duties whilst campaigning for the seat. He hopes to increase the Labour presence and good will in a traditionally Tory-Lib Dem two-horse race. As we neared the end of our leaflet drop, he expressed surprise at the muted response from the public about his Labour candidacy: “I was expecting a little more vitriol to be honest”.
Perhaps he is as surprised by Labour’s recent much-improved poll ratings as the commentators in the national press. A group, who wrote off Gordon Brown as a bad joke long ago, practically rolling out the red carpet and pink champagne for David Cameron, have had to eat their words.
The removals van had been ordered for the May 7 outside No.10 Downing Street. The cutlery had been packed in boxes labelled ‘fragile’. Labour was on their way out and good riddance too.
Doubt has crept in for the Conservatives, where once sunny optimism reigned. This could be down to the wilting of key Tory policies under any kind of spotlight. Picking up on the electorate’s weakening allegiances and with hardcore support for the establishment parties at an all-time low, Hratche compares political parties to Non-Governmental Organisations.
“There is a reason why membership for groups like Amnesty International continues to rise, while party political membership dwindles. You can sign up to Amnesty, back a cause, and then be notified the results of each individual campaign”. It is on this reasoning that he pushes his local agenda that can produce a small yet noticeable change, focusing on a positive message. Unlike many other candidates, Hratche steers clear of too much negative campaigning, so often prevalent in marginal seats.
His key ideas are broadly based on Labour’s “future fair for all” theme, but hyper-localised. He hopes, with a few modest successes, that this will re-engage people with decision-making once more. On their own, each issue may not be a vote-winner. But whether it be saving an elderly care project in Seaford, recognising the full spread of towns in the constituency or delivering a beach back to the public, Hratche wishes to enact manageable changes as well as keeping up with his duties to Parliament, which may re-build some bridges and engender confidence in the discredited political process.
He may have a keen eye on local battles but Hratche also keeps tabs on the wider issues of the day. On proposed House of Lords reforms (which include making the second chamber wholly or partially elected) he is unequivocal. “I am delighted. It may be a bit late, but it’s something to believe in”. When he says Labour is the only party which would ever reform the Lords, it is impossible to argue against.
The very morning on the day of the interview, Norman Baker was found to have abused foreign trips laid on by foreign governments, especially Tibet. He failed to declare an interest in debates about the nation.
Reported in local newspaper The Argus, it states: “Liberal Democrat frontbencher Norman Baker has allegedly broken regulations 37 times, leading debates and tabling questions about Tibet.
“He has travelled to India twice courtesy of the Tibet Society and the Tibet government-in-exile, the BBC said.
“Under Commons rules, MPs are not allowed to press for UK government assistance to a place from which they have recently received hospitality. They must register the trip and then declare relevant trips when tabling questions, motions or debates”.
The comments written underneath the article suggest Baker will struggle against an angry electorate, for whom the current crops of MPs seem like a “rotten bunch”.
It is precisely this sort of shenanigans that turns young voters – and older voters alike – away from politics. It’s all very well to brush off the incidents on “technical oversights”, but it hardly fosters the right environment in which people can vote and feel their representative will do what’s best for them.
Baker’s reputation as a holier-than-thou candidate appears to be in tatters. It will be interesting to see whether Hratche can take advantage of this slip-up and offer a valid alternative.
As we bid each other goodbye back in Lewes, with 1,200 leaflets delivered and an unexpectedly large gaggle of eight local activists turning up to help, Hratche goes back to his Newhaven home, preparing for a further six weeks of electoral battle. He may not win the seat but if his campaigns are listened to and he gets the recognition they deserve, it may increase the Labour vote. With local elections round the corner in 2011, it certainly can’t hurt Labour’s further prospects in this constituency.
Speaking of further prospects, watch out for Hratche.
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This post was written by Chris Mason-Felsing