Here’s why canal boat dwellers find it so hard to vote

Oooh, a boat. Image: creative commons.

‘Not my problem’. This was, in essence, the response received by worried boat owners when they reached out to Bethnal Green & Bow MP Rushnara Ali following a spike in crime along east London’s canals. The boaters had contacted Ali after one particularly bad night when eight of the forty-odd boats moored along Victoria Park were broken into, but they struggled to foster much sympathy.

“Unfortunately, per strict parliamentary protocol, Members of Parliament may only make enquiries on behalf of those living within their constituency.”

Forced to move every two weeks, boaters rarely have a postal address in the area they are moored; instead usually having their post delivered to places of work or to long suffering friends. This means that, in the slightly Kafkaesque logic of parliamentary democracy, should boaters run into trouble, MPs can’t offer much help – despite them technically living in the constituency, albeit only temporarily. Although the postal problem can be resolved with an arbitrary local Amazon Locker, it highlights the issue of representation for communities not fixed to a particular area.

Registering to vote is a challenge but not one insurmountable. For anyone with no fixed address, whether they are homeless, living in a boat or part of one of the larger travelling communities, a ‘declaration of local connection’ must be filled out. As you’d expect from the name, this shows the electoral services that an individual has a particular affiliation with a constituency and therefore is warranted to vote as part of that area.

Engagement is another problem entirely. In 2012, a representative for Roma Gypsies in the south of England estimated that as few as 10 per cent of Gypsies or Irish Travellers vote. As with most demographics that have a tendency to avoid the ballot boxes, politicians give little concern for their problems or worse, use them as a target to gain votes.

Campaigns like Operation Traveller Vote are trying to turn this around. As you would expect for the name, the movement aims to encourage traveller communities to register to vote and then turn up on the day. They hope politicians may actually listen to the traveller communities should the 350,000 members around the UK start flexing their democratic muscles.

And although it’s hard to know whether it bears any relation to such campaigns, it’s worth noting that last year’s Labour Manifesto pledged to protect the rights of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

Having no fixed address may make it more difficult to engage democratically, but it’s not impossible. Far trickier is encouraging such communities to vote in a system that has long ignored them. But as soon as political parties start engaging directly in a positive way, just as Labour has begun to do, then there’s no doubt that those who are usually constantly moving will be increasingly heading for the polling stations.



Joe Anderson: Why I resigned from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership

Liverpool Lime Street station, 2008. Image: Getty.

The Labour mayor of Liverpool has a few choice words for Chris Grayling.

I resigned from the board of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership this week. I just didn’t see the point of continuing when it is now crystal clear the government isn’t committed to delivering the step-change in rail investment in the North that we so desperately need. Without it, the Northern Powerhouse will remain a pipedream.

Local government leaders like me have been left standing at the altar for the past three years. The research is done. The case has been made. Time and again we’ve been told to be patient – the money is coming.

Well, we’ve waited long enough.

The only thing left is for the transport secretary to come up with the cash. I’m not holding my breath, so I’m getting on with my day job.

There’s a broader point here. Rail policy has been like a roller-coaster in recent years. It soars and loops, twisting and turning, without a clear, committed trajectory. There is no consistency – or fairness. When London makes the case for Crossrail, it’s green-lit. When we make the same case for HS3 – linking the key Northern cities – we are left in Whitehall limbo.

Just look at the last week. First we had the protracted resignation of Sir Terry Morgan as Chairman of HS2 Ltd. Just when we need to see firm leadership and focus we have instead been offered confusion and division. His successor, Allan Cooke, said that HS2 Ltd is “working to deliver” services from London to Birmingham – the first phase of the line – from 2026, “in line with the targeted delivery date”. (“In line?”)

Just when HS2 finally looked like a done deal, we have another change at the top and promises about delivery are sounding vaguer. Rumours of delays and cost over-runs abound.

Some would like to see the case for HS2 lose out to HS3, the cross-Pennine east-west line. This is a bit like asking which part of a train is more important: its engine, or its wheels. We need both HS2 and HS3. We are currently left trying to build the fourth industrial revolution on infrastructure from the first.

If we are ever to equip our country with the ability to meet rising customer and freight demand, improve connectivity between our major conurbations and deliver the vision of the Northern Powerhouse, then we need the key infrastructure in place to do that.

There are no shortcuts. Ministers clearly believe there are. The second piece of disappointing news is that officials at the Department for Transport have already confirmed to the freight industry that any HS3 line will not be electrified, the Yorkshire Post reports.

This is a classic false economy. The renaissance of the Liverpool Dockside – now called Superport – is undergoing a £1bn investment, enabling it to service 95 per cent  of the world’s largest container ships, opening up faster supply chain transit for at least 50 per cent  of the existing UK container market. Why squander this immense opportunity with a cut-price rail system?

Without the proper infrastructure, the North of England will never fulfil its potential, leaving our economy lop-sided and under-utilised for another generation. This is not provincial jealousy. Building a rail network that’s fit for purpose for both passenger and freight will remove millions of car journeys from the road and make our national economy more productive. It will also be cleaner, cheaper and more reliable. Our European neighbours have long understood the catalytic effect of proper connectivity between cities.

Similarly, linking together towns and key cities across the North of England is a massive prize that will boost growth, create jobs and provide a counterweight to Greater London, easing pressures on the capital and building resilience into our national economy.

To realise this vision, we need the finance and political commitment. Confirmation that the government is pushing ahead with HS3 – as well as HS2 – is now sorely needed.

With Brexit looming and all the uncertainly it brings in its wake, it is even more pressing to have clarity around long-term investment decisions about our critical infrastructure. Given the investment, the North will seize the chance.

But until ministers are serious, I have a city to run.

Joe Anderson is the elected Labour mayor of Liverpool.