Border Lines

From London to Berwick: Culture shock? Oh, yes!

Democracy gets my vote of confidence

You can’t dabble in politics. Either you enter the battleground ready for bruising debates and accusations of how wrong you are, or you opt to sit in the garden with a knotted hanky on your head. I am of the latter persuasion. So it was with some trepidation that I supported The Husband in his decision to stand for the town council recently.

Some of us stayed in the garden.

Some of us stayed in the garden.

Of course, Northumberland County Council largely holds the purse strings and power for what goes on in Berwick. The town council tries to get the best deal for the town under challenging conditions whilst juggling things like allotments and dog poo (not literally). The Husband had no personal or political axe to grind but a sense that he’d never felt so at home in a community. So, with a desire to work with the many groups doing exciting things around Berwick, he stood as an independent candidate for the council in Castle Ward.

Joe Poster

Being a WAG has been fascinating and humbling. Castle Ward had six candidates jostling for three seats (most Berwick wards install councillors unopposed).The Husband produced a leaflet and set about introducing himself to Berwick by lacerating his knuckles on some 1500 letter boxes. We developed new respect for postmen and women. The election process was confused by the fact that the county council elections were taking place at the same time. Unsurprisingly, many found it hard to separate the two events.

The vote count took place a day after the election in an Alnwick Sports Centre. The Husband and I arrived not too sure what to expect. It was just like on the telly! Clusters of coffee-fuelled, tired, anxious or bored people stood around the hall. At the centre was a latticework of wooden tables with flags indicating constituencies such as, Norham and Islandshires. Behind them people beavered away flipping through piles of slips with rubber thimbles on their fingers.

One of the first people we saw was Gavin Jones, elected moments before as Lib Dem county councillor for Berwick North. He and his wife, Gail, sat almost forlornly at the side of the hall, like an audience after the show has departed. We shook hands and congratulated. I spotted Sir Alan Beith in an anxious huddle. A disputed ballot paper for Amble West with Warkworth was causing high drama. Finally it was declared valid. The Tories triumphed over the Lib Dems by one vote. Had it been a tie, a coin would have been flipped. Now that’s what I call democracy!

Finally the town council count began. It was thrilling! Candidates and their supporters gathered at the counting tables to ensure their votes were correctly recorded. Unlike the county council papers with just one X, Castle Ward had three votes per slip. Each was called out and logged by pencil on graph paper. We watched the bank of votes growing under each name. Five pairs of counters were hard at it – the word was, ‘It’s too close to call.’ And, with just 39 votes separating the top five candidates, it was phenomenally close. The Husband was overwhelmed by the support he received, torn between relief and disappointment at his fourth place, and humbled by the whole experience.

Vote-counting is, I think, something everyone should witness. It is wonderfully human and fallible and levelling. Rivals stand side-by-side waiting to celebrate graciously or carry disappointment stoically (or not!). It is a reminder that each vote is counted and each vote makes a difference. I guess the high proportion of no-votes is a measure of how disengaged or disempowered many feel. And, yes, moaning over a pint in the pub or from under a knotted hanky is enormously satisfying. However, my belief that voting (not abstaining) is the one opportunity we have to change how things are done has been restored.

A version of this article first was published in the Berwick Advertiser on June 6th 2013

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