When I met American Girl in Neros for an almond croissant, I thought we would be gossiping about mutual friends, not discussing the merits of proportional representation. But it turned out she was still a bit excited about her first vote as a new citizen of this sceptred isle. Whenever I tried to move the topic onto X’s hideous new handbag or how Y had been banned from the John Harvey’s for eating beer mats, Am-Girl behaved as if these were trivial matters unworthy of consideration.
‘Yes, the Gardeners threw him out as well’, she said dismissively. ‘Anyway, can you explain this Alternative Vote system?’
I wasn’t much help on AV, nor on how the newsreader managed to announce ‘Theresa May gets equalities role’ with a straight face, nor what a coalition actually meant in practice (though to be fair to me, the ‘government’ also seemed unsure).
As I wiped the crumbs off my chin, preparing to leave her to an intensive study of last week’s newspapers, she said casually, ‘Weird about the BNP, isn’t it?’
‘What, weirder than usual?’
‘You wouldn’t think they’d get almost 600 votes in Lewes, would you?’
‘How many?’ My shriek caused all the baristas to spill those little espresso glasses they mess about with.
She showed me the stats: 594 people who looked at the numerous options and thought, ‘Well, that Nick Griffin, he’s got a point.’
A lost deposit, sure, and less than the Green Party (though not by much). But considerably more than I’d have guessed. And oodles more than the poor Independent candidate, who with just 80 votes couldn’t even have counted on all his Facebook friends.
I walked home, not in my usual happy perambulating mode, but anxiously, paranoid-ly. I scrutinised the faces of passers-by. Did he vote for them? Did she? Later, I looked up the history of Lewes voting (there was nothing on telly), and discovered this was the first time the BNP had stood here. Though back in 1979, when skinheads had a brief fashion moment, the National Front gained 764 Lewes votes.
When Aging Lad popped round, I was lost in melancholic thought. ‘You live somewhere, you think you’ve got the measure of it, then it turns out there are hundreds of people who don’t read the Guardian after all’, I whinged.
‘Ah’. He looked embarrassed. ‘You know how you forced me to vote?’
‘Yes indeedy. Universal suffrage, not to be taken for granted.’
‘Well, as you know, I’d never done it before. Got flustered. Couldn’t remember if it was a tick or a cross. Dropped the pencil. Got the BNP muddled up with the SDP.’
So that accounted for one of the votes. I had just another 593 to track down.
‘The SDP weren’t even standing, Lad. Because they disbanded twenty years ago.’
‘I’m very sorry’, he said. Then brightened. ‘But it didn’t make any difference, did it? My vote didn’t count, anyhow.’
There were many of us who could say the same.
Beth Miller, 19th May 2010