Serious historical dramas are rarely box office hits with today’s cola-slurping, nachos-crunching, hotdog-chomping cinema audiences, most of whom much prefer films based on fantasy rather than fact and the more bizarre the plot the better.
A rare exception which did relatively well recently was “Suffragette”, in which Meryl Streep had a cameo role as Emmeline Pankhurst, or as some cynics might say, it was a case of Meryl Streep playing Meryl Streep playing Emmeline Pankhurst.
The film generally received praise for historical accuracy although it is a sad reflection of our times that at a BAFTA screening in London, the screenwriter, Abi Morgan, felt it incumbent to explain (apologise for?) the almost complete absence of non-white actresses. (One would have thought that the story being set in the Britain of 1912/13 and most leading suffragettes being upper-middle class, was self-explanatory.)
Still, the film no doubt made apparent to a wider public the struggle by a group of dedicated females – often with opposition from among their own sex – to extend the franchise to women and even though this was eventually achieved, in 1918, full parity with men did not arrive until ten years later.
In 1928 Parliament finally passed an Act giving the vote to all men and women aged 21 and over. Perhaps just as importantly it also meant women were free to vote for whichever electoral candidate they wished without being unduly influenced by forceful fathers, bullying brothers or hectoring husbands.
1918 also saw the introduction of the postal vote – or ‘absent vote’ as it was then called for those serving abroad with the armed forces. Further changes in the law, in 1948 and 1985, extended postal ballots to those who were unable to attend polling stations through incapacity or disability or because of work-related travel commitments.
So far, so good, but in 2001 the Blair government took what many believed to be a step too far by making it possible for anyone to vote by post, regardless of their circumstances.
This immediately raised concerns about potential for abuse and by 2014 an electoral judge, Richard Mawry QC, was declaring that the system had become open to fraud on an “industrial scale” and called for an end to postal voting on demand.
Although Judge Mawry did not allude to the fact, the concerns had one connecting theme; all the areas involved had a high Asian population, with claims in particular of women – especially those who did not speak English – being pressurised into filling their postal voting forms by political activists.
Concerns were again raised towards the end of last year at the Oldham by-election where fully one-quarter of the votes cast were by post; they also benefited mainly one party (Labour) and most came from areas of the town containing large numbers of residents with an Asian background.
The secret ballot was enshrined in law back in 1872 precisely to stop the individual voter being influenced by a laird, an employer or any other person able to exert undue and unfair pressure. Nearly 150 years further on, society appears to have undergone a partial regression to those dark days.
In the forthcoming election for the Scottish parliament, any voter will be eligible to vote by post or by proxy (‘allowing somebody you trust to vote on your behalf’, according to an Electorate Commission blurb).
The latter leads to an intriguing question: ‘Why, a century after the struggle of the Suffragettes to secure the franchise for women, would any female want to allow any man to vote on her behalf except in the most unusual of circumstances?’
So far the problem has not – at least outwardly – affected Scotland but can this country afford to be complacent?
Does the fact that Labour and the SNP fight like two ferrets in a sack in certain parts of the south side of Glasgow not suggest that large numbers of ‘block votes’ through the postal system might be up for grabs?
In the aftermath of the election, perhaps the Electoral Commission in Scotland could inform us if postal voting is spread evenly across the country or concentrated on certain constituencies and, if the latter, ascertain the reasons why.
Back to Oldham, the number of votes cast for the winning candidate amounted to 62 per cent of the total so postal returns did not, in the end, make any difference to the outcome in this safe Labour seat.
However, in a general election postal votes in marginal seats could easily tip the balance – leading to the possibility of a government being elected on the strength of votes not cast in the absolute privacy of the polling booth, which is the only guarantee of an individual making a choice free of undue persuasion or coercion.
If that is not a threat to our democracy can someone please tell me what is?
Although by far the greater beneficiary of postal votes (in England at least) is the Labour party, the present government sees no reason to alter the present system beyond some tinkering. Presumably, right-on ‘Dave’ and other senior touchy-feely Tories are terrified by the accusations of ‘racism’ that would inevitably follow.
Proponents attempt to justify the present system on the basis that it brings into the ‘democratic process’ people who might otherwise be excluded.
In reply, I would suggest that anyone who chooses to settle in this country but refuses to learn the language or anyone, from whatever background, who simply cannot be bothered make the short trip to a local polling station open from seven in the morning until ten at night have, by their own volition, disenfranchised themselves.