X marks spot where casting a vote should be a duty for all

I well remember the excitement of visiting the polling station to vote in my first General Election.

It was 1992. Mum and dad came with me down to an annexe at Holden Lane High School and I recall thinking that I had properly come of age.

Four years earlier I would have been huffing and puffing my way through PE just a few yards away from the booth where I was now putting the X on my ballot paper.

It never entered my head not to vote.

It didn’t matter to me that Stoke-on-Trent North was as dyed-in-the-wool Labour as it gets and that my vote wouldn’t make a scrap of difference to the result.

As far as I was concerned I had a duty to take part. After all, hadn’t people died to give us such freedoms?

Twelve months earlier, as a cub reporter, I had been thrilled when given the task of covering the local election count at the King’s Hall in Stoke.

At the time, the local Labour party had a vice-like grip on the council and the whole place seemed, to me, to be run like their own personal fiefdom.

Stewart Titchener, the council’s chief executive for many years, was the returning officer.

Someone of genuine gravitas, the man who in 1980 had been chosen to join the team of election supervisors in Rhodesia left a real impression on me.

I remember being transfixed by the people counting the votes and the candidates walking the aisles like so many cats on a hot tin roof.

I recall the jibes and the euphoria as the results were announced – and my own nerves as I checked and re-checked the results before filing my copy.

Fast forward to today and the current General Election campaign is in now full swing.

Sadly we know that – in spite of all the hype and the wall-to-wall media coverage – the whole shooting match is being ignored by millions of potential voters.

We’ve seen history made with the first televised debate involving the leaders of the main parties.

Meanwhile, celebrity supporters of the various parties – such as Take That’s Gary Barlow – can be found mixing with the great unwashed in places like Nantwich.

All this on the back of the MPs’ expenses scandal which irked even the politically unaware.

However, the sad fact is that – if the last election is anything to go by – then about 40 per cent of the electorate won’t even bother to vote.

The turnout for the 2005 General Election was just 61.28 per cent.

Locally the figures made pretty grim reading with only the Staffordshire Moorlands count (with 64 per cent) recording a turnout higher than the national average.

In the city just 48.4 per cent of the electorate turned out in the Stoke Central constituency where Labour’s parachuted candidate Tristram Hunt will this time contest Mark Fisher’s vacant seat.

Even the ancient and loyal borough had nowt to shout about – only mustering 58.2 per cent of its potential voters.

And, if you think those figures are bad, consider the turnouts in local elections.

At the last city council elections in May 2008 the turnout was just 30.2 per cent.

In last year’s European elections the turnout locally was a measly 26.73 per cent – the lowest in the West Midlands.

When we scrapped (wrongly, in my opinion) the elected mayoral system in Stoke-on-Trent, just 19.23 per cent of the electorate voted.

To my mind there’s only one solution to this paralysing apathy.

We can talk all we want about voters being disenfranchised and politicians can trot out platitudes about re-engaging with the electorate until the cows come home. None of it makes a scrap of difference.

To my mind, as well as being a civic right, voting should be seen as a civic duty.

It is time to make voting in all elections a legal requirement of every citizen of the UK over the age of 18 – as they do in other countries.

Even if some people simply turn up and put an X in the box marked ‘none of the above’ at least it means they will be taking part.

At the same time, all children should be given a basic grounding in politics in order that we equip them to make informed decisions.

Perhaps then the importance of voting and politics in general will start to permeate down to the millions of voters who, at present, just can’t be bothered with it all.

It may seem a draconian measure – but better that than the current situation where many people are more interested in the contestants on Britain’s Got Talent than who will be our next Prime Minister.

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