How my great gran defeated voter apathy

Photograph: Dean Burnett

This article by Dean Burnett, appeared on the Guardian Newspaper website in the Science section on the 2nd February 2015. Thanks to Dean who gave us permission to add it to our website. Actual article is to be found here.

“This is meant to be a science blog, so officially this post is about how tangible outcomes and involvement can provide psychological motivation, in the context of the upcoming general election.

Truthfully, this is a story about my great gran (pictured), one I heard only recently but felt compelled to share. And since I have this platform, I’m doing just that.

Some background. Evelyn Seaward (although everyone called her ‘Mam’ Seaward) was born October 1908 and died August 2003, aged 95. She lived all her life in the Garw Valley, north of Bridgend, South Wales, in the village of Pontycymer, where I also lived until age 18.

Photograph: Dean Burnett
Evelyn Seaward, scourge of voter apathy. Photograph: Dean Burnett

I was 21 when she passed, so had the privilege of knowing her well, but only as a classic example of a cheery old lady; white haired, doddering, mischievous, given to saying things both playful (e.g. “I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get old”) and worryingly dark (“If I could live my life again, I wouldn’t live this long. It’s just a hassle”).

She raised many children successfully with little money and often single handed, what with her husband always down the coal mine that was the reason for the community’s existence. She must have been a strong, vital person, I just never witnessed this directly. But then I found out about her Election Day habits, and I had to re-evaluate my concept of who I’d been dealing with throughout my childhood.

Mam Seaward was the typical formidable matriarch you find in rural Wales and similar small communities. For the Pratchett fans, think Nanny Ogg from Discworld. Coincidentally, Mam Seaward’s birthday was October 31st, meaning she was (affectionately) referred to as “the old witch”.

There’s a single bridge in Pontycymer, connecting both sides of the valley. Most of her life, Mam Seaward lived next to the bridge on one side, so this side was her “territory”. Every Election day, the designated polling station was also right by her house, so Mam Seaward would set up a table outside and sit there all day with her red rosette and pamphlets (we’re talking about an aged Welsh valleys resident here so she was Labour to the core, although old Labour that is; no idea what she’d make of this new lot).

Her (self-appointed?) job was to encourage passers-by to vote. And by “encourage”, I mean bark “have you voted yet?” at anyone she knew, which was everyone. There were two acceptable answers; “Yes”, or “I’m definitely going to”. Any other response was simply not permitted.

You might think people would ignore or dismiss this nosey old biddy, sticking her uninvited nose in like some working-class Jessica Fletcher. You would be wrong; her co-villagers may not have cared about governments or politics, but they cared about crossing Mam Seaward.

Any indication that you weren’t going to vote meant you got glared at. And nothing burns through voter apathy (or anything else) faster than the glare of a furious Welsh gran. If you doubt this then you clearly have never been glared at by a furious Welsh gran. It would make a basilisk tremble. So yes, everyone voted.

All day she sat guarding the bridge, like some socialist troll. So why didn’t people just avoid her if they really didn’t want to vote? Just give the polling station a wide berth until the polls close. Surely someone must have thought of that? Indeed they did. Unfortunately, so did Mam Seaward.

Remember, she knew everyone! And she kept count. As it got closer to polls closing, Mam Seward would check her list and if anyone hadn’t voted yet she’d send her granddaughter (my own long-suffering mother) to go and get them. A young girl appearing at your door isn’t the most intimidating thing in the world, but her saying “Mam Seaward says you’ve got to come and vote” apparently is, because nobody ever resisted for long.

Every election day, she’d do the same. In these days of voter turnout decline it’s difficult to imagine someone caring so much about voting, let alone having the fortitude to cajole an entire community to do it too. Where did this enthusiasm come from? It’s a common complaint that old people vote more, but does anyone stop to wonder why?

In my great gran’s case, she was already twenty years old when women were first allowed to vote. And she saw all the wars and depressions that tore communities apart, caused by decisions from people on high that they had no control over. With all that, who wouldn’t embrace the right to participate as soon as you’d finally got it?

Was Mam Seaward’s zeal due to her being resistant to change, a charge usually levelled at older voters? Definitely not; mentioning “the good old days” to her was a guaranteed way to get a furious lecture about how dreadful the good old days were. Every development in her life (e.g. the founding of the NHS) made things better, and she wanted this to keep happening. She might have occasionally expressed some views of foreigners in-keeping with UKIP’s, but Nigel Farage would sooner get a clip round the ear than Mam Seaward’s vote.

2015 General election coverage has started, and is already nothing but cover-upsscandal, pessimism and recriminations, all centred around the wealthy residents of Westminster. You can see why many people get angrier about losing WIFI signal than the opportunity to vote. But as the Scottish referendum, the recent Greece election and my great gran’s example show, it doesn’t have to be this way. If people can associate voting with actual outcomes, they are very keen to do it.

The next election may look like it offers more of the same, but it’s rarely ever been so uncertain. It’s all to play for, so I’m sorry Russell Brand but the more people who vote, the better. Even if it’s just to spoil a ballot, that’s a way of showing politicians you’re not happy with the choices available. Not turning up doesn’t do that; take it from a scientist, you can’t make decisions based on data you don’t have.

So I’m going to follow my great gran’s example and vote this May, and I’ll do it keenly. I can only urge others to do the same. Whatever the Election results, let’s try and make them legitimate.

Also, you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that glare. And if you think her passing away might prove an obstacle to this, then you didn’t know Mam Seaward.”

Dean Burnett is rarely this sentimental in public, as demonstrated by his Twitter feed. @garwboy

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