Floating voters' rights

Even a doorway can be listed as a residence, writes Tony Bell
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The Independent Culture
The knot of Big Issue vendors are deep in discussion. "What's the point? I voted for years and look where it got me. It's just a way for them to keep tabs on us anyway." "I think it's really good news because they'll have to listen to us now, so I am going to vote, but I'm not sure who for yet." "It's only right that we should have it, but I'm not voting Labour. They run the council and they've done nothing for me, so I'm going to vote Liberal next time."

This week, Manchester City Council and the Big Issue launched a campaign to get the homeless back on to the electoral register. Homeless people, they said, could legally register the doorways of Boots, McDonald's and Sainsbury's as their place of abode, provided they could prove that they had been sleeping in the same place for a period of time.

Although the Representation of the People Act makes no reference to excluding the homeless from the democratic process, and no sinister Thatcherite legislation exists to cut them out, many homeless people believed they were not eligible to vote. And many, like Jeff, who has been homeless for five years, disenfranchised themselves when they dropped off the electoral roll to evade the poll tax or council tax.

In February 1994, the Home Office published a circular which stated: "If someone can be regarded as having established their residence in a particular place, the absence of bricks and mortar is not a handicap for qualification [to vote]."

"For the past five years we have been fighting a battle against a declining electorate," says Graham Stringer, leader of Manchester City Council. "So when the circular came out it seemed to be something worth pursuing."

Ruth Stevens, editor of the north-west Big Issue, explains how she became involved. "We had a letter from a reader asking us to try to get homeless people on to the register. I thought it would need a change in the law to do that, so I was surprised to be told that all it needed was a more flexible practice from the council. Up to now they've been put off by the practical difficulties of finding the homeless and convincing them to vote."

That is the task now facing Ms Stevens and her colleagues. At present, the electoral register is compiled from postal addresses, so a voting card addressed to someone in a high street shop doorwaywould be rejected by the Post Office as improperly addressed. Now homeless voters can register at the Big Issue office and collect their poll cards there.

At a time when mistrust, cynicism and apathy towards politics and politicians is widespread, the idea of getting the homeless actively involved in the system that has marginalised them may seem unduly optimistic.

So is Manchester's initiative just an empty gesture, an attempt to garner more votes for the Labour majority on the council?

"It's a matter of principle that people should have the right to vote," says Mr Stringer. "There are not that many people sleeping on the streets of Manchester, and even if they did all vote Labour, it wouldn't make any difference."

David Denver, of the University of Lancaster politics department, confirms that view. "It will have no real effect on election results. Most of the homeless live in the inner cities which are in the main Labour controlled, so if there is any effect, it will hardly be noticeable."

It seems unlikely that we will now see a corralling of the homeless into marginal wards, a kind of low-rent Westminster scandal in the making.

Ms Stevens wants to see Manchester's initiative exten-ded. "I've been talking to councils in Liverpool, Leeds and Salford, but it's a slow process," she says.

"I've also been talking to our offices in Wales, Scotland and London, and hopefully we can work together in a national campaign."

Apathy on the part of the estimated 139,790 homeless people in England, rather than official resistance, may be their biggest obstacle.

"Chillie", 24, who has been homeless since 1990, hopes the campaigners succeed. "Everybody should have the right to vote whether or not they are in a house and no matter who they are. We are human beings just like everyone else."

The homeless might get their voice back, but will anybody from any of the parties listen and take action to improve their plight?