ON THURSDAY, when I step into the rickety plywood booth at the local primary school and take up the pencil on a string to cast my vote, a voice will seem to whisper to me as it always does on polling day.
It’s my father that I can hear in my mind’s ear, from long ago, as we walked hand-in-hand from another primary school to the parish hall nearby, explaining patiently how important it was for us to take just a few minutes on the way home to call in so he could put a cross on a piece of paper.
Millions and millions of people, he said, all around the world wished they could do this and wished they could have their say. It was our privilege that we could, but more than that, it was our duty to do so.
Often enough, it being after school, and those being the days when it was common for the staff to live close to where they taught, we would see some of the teachers voting too, and sometimes the headmaster as well, who would shake hands with the parents and chat a while about how their children were doing.
Around the time of polling day, he would always do the same thing, going to the big cupboard in the corner of the classroom and getting out the globe, with the countries coloured in blue and yellow and pink.
“Gather round, everybody”, was the summons, and as we stood around his desk, he’d spin the globe slowly, pointing out the countries that were like ours, and those that weren’t.
It was part geography, part lesson in life, as he went through the countries where there was no pencil on a length of scraggy string, no flimsy booth, no chance to have a say, telling us why our dads were right, why it mattered.
Perhaps, a few weeks ago in Afghanistan, parents and headteachers were telling their children much the same thing as masses of people defied threats of violence by the Taliban to have their say.
Maybe the parents and teachers of India told their children, too, as two-thirds of the adult population of that vast democracy turned out to queue at the polling stations.
At about the time I said a last farewell to my old headmaster, one of the countries that he had always pointed out as not having the same rights as we enjoyed – South Africa – went to the polls in its first elections in which skin colour was no bar to voting. The endless queues of newly-enfranchised people paid eloquent testimony to how prized democracy was to a people for so long denied it.
If polling day at the primary school close to me runs true to form, there will be no queues, nor anything resembling a rush. When the votes are counted, I would be surprised if the turnout exceeds about 30 per cent – if it even reaches that – for the European elections and probably far less for the council poll.
That is a picture likely to be replicated in most wards across Yorkshire and beyond, a snapshot of apathy and disengagement, a mass shrugging of the shoulders.
As a society, we have lost the quiet passion to engage with our democracy. The undemonstrative conviction that propelled my father’s generation to turn out come rain or shine because it mattered has been suffocated by cynicism.
A world-weary chorus of “They’re all the same, it doesn’t matter” has undermined our elections for years now. Council polls, even though they result in one of the most direct influences on all our daily lives, fail to attract the interest of more than a rump of the electorate.
The vacuous nihilism of the argument put forward by comedian Russell Brand in urging people not to vote is less a manifesto than a summation of a mood.
It’s easy and lazily comfortable to be anti-establishment when it’s safe to assume that the establishment won’t turn round and bite. Those that have been bitten, in Afghanistan or apartheid-era South Africa, are rather less complacent.
The time may be coming when the opportunity to vote, that exhilarating opportunity to have a say, goes from being a choice to becoming compulsory in order to combat woefully low turnouts.
That though would diminish the power of that moment in the polling booth, alone with the inner voice of conscience and conviction, when the cross marked by the pencil may just make all the difference, turning it from a moment of complete freedom into a chore.
Better yet – for now, at least – to cajole and encourage, to spread the word that engagement is the only way forward and apathy a dead end. If you don’t like what candidates wearing whatever colour rosette it happens to be have to say, argue and campaign until they listen to your concerns and address them. Find that quiet inner voice of conviction before the stridency of compulsion drowns it out.