Saturday, 24 November 2012

Electing to Vote

A new Member of Parliament for Manchester was recently elected and, during the run up to the election, I happened to see a couple of old documentary films about the City. The first was a monochrome public information film commissioned by the City Council in 1946. Its message was "Now that the war is over we are going to knock down the slums, build new housing, fix the infrastructure and stop polluting the air". It was backed up by quaint, cardboard cut-out graphics (state-of-the-art at the time) to illustrate the statistics of taxation and spending.

The film was widely distributed to cinemas in the region, as well as being shown to MPs at Westminster, and is now preserved as an historical document. It is not without artistic merit, thanks to the talents of its 'bohemian' director, but what lingers for me is the visual impact of something that was taken for granted at the time - the grimy condition of all the buildings. Apart from the slums, many of them had been grandly conceived and splendidly executed, yet all of them appeared utterly miserable in their overcoats of soot.
A second film, independently made and shot in the neighbouring borough of Salford in 1968, depicted life in the slums twenty two years later. Not much seemed to have changed - except that the filth could now be seen in colour. I was transfixed especially by an intimate domestic scene in which a young couple, at home, bathed their four young children in a tin tub containing six inches of water laboriously heated over a gas stove in the lean-to masquerading as a kitchen. Meanwhile, not so far away and all around them, the 'summer of love' generation (myself included) basked in the sybaritic pleasures of sex and drugs and rock n roll, unaware or uncaring of their condition. How easy it is to lead a life blinkered from that of others.

These films proved to be apt viewing just prior to an election. Their evidence of the persistence of huge social inequalities over hundreds of years - despite the enormous wealth Britain had amassed during that time - was quite hard to comprehend. If you hadn't already got a political view on the subject it certainly would have helped pull one into focus. If you had, it served as a reminder that there is never room for complacency.

Meanwhile, at the hustings, there were twelve hopeful candidates - eleven of whom were either brave or foolish considering that just one party has held the seat ever since rain began to fall on Manchester. I was actually impressed by all of them as individuals. They uniformly professed honesty and integrity. Not one of them put forward an argument in favour of social inequality (so where it comes from is a mystery). All of them wanted a better life for everyone - except the Communist League candidate who, having long ago decided that the population comprises just two types - workers and bosses - would clearly have preferred the total elimination of the latter. In the event, out of an electorate of 91,692, he persuaded 64 people to vote for him.

I was impressed by the sensible arguments of the candidate for the People's Democratic Party - despite the fact that he was from Yorkshire - but, with only 71 votes, he got 7 fewer than the Monster Raving Looney Party - who do not have a sensible argument between them. I was also seduced by the Pirate Party candidate's enthusiastic exhortation to rid ourselves of the yoke of Big Brother but, on reflection, found it difficult to envision him as part of a credible government with grown-up ministers and so on.

So, the end result was a predictably massive win for the incumbent party. But the desperately low turnout (just 18% of the electorate) was an even more impressive triumph for apathy. Perhaps the turnout could be boosted at the next election by putting those films on general release a few weeks beforehand?

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