British politics can be seen as a long and tiring horse race. Each jockey, with their coats of blue, red or any other colour in the political palette, must one day clear a series of hurdles if they ever wish to cross the finish line that is true democracy. Our most recent General Election saw the entire parliamentary pack topple over a rather impressive barrier with the number of female MPs in the Commons increased to over 200 for the first time in British history. Still, this figure is not close enough to the halfway post that should be expected of an egalitarian society such as our own, but it is definitely a huge leap in the right direction.
104 years prior to our most recent election day, on June 8, 1913, Emily Davison gave her life for universal suffrage as the consequence of a very real horse race. Whether she stepped out in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby purposely, having already given up so much in the name of the Suffragette movement, or whether she simply made a fatal error, it is without a shadow of a doubt that Ms. Davison became a martyr that day. Her sacrifice paved the way for the universal right to vote that all men and women over the age of eighteen enjoy today. We now live in a world where women are at the forefront of politics in many countries, another feat that would be unimaginable without the actions of the Suffragettes. It is surprising then, the lack of acknowledgement and appreciation that is afforded to Emily Davison, an incredibly prominent member of the movement, in current British cultural consciousness.
Many may argue that Davison’s particular brand of activism is cause enough for her to be forgotten from our cultural identity. From smashing windows to endangering the lives of normal people through arson, she is often seen as an overly violent woman who did more harm than good for the organisation in general. But we must acknowledge why these women, who had been campaigning in a peaceful, sedated ‘wait and see’ method since 1832 turned to violence. Seventy-one years of repeated unsuccessful action boiled over into the creation of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by Emmeline Pankhurst who famously said, ‘I would rather be a rebel than a slave.’ Davison herself joined the WSPU in 1906, quickly becoming an active and outspoken member.
It was clear that these women were achieving no progress after four separate petitions to government were rejected without comment or concession. The militant campaign truly began in 1905 with the idea of ‘Deeds Not Words’ becoming the cornerstone of the movement. By 1909, Davison had given up her career in teaching to become a full time activist and as a result was imprisoned on multiple occasions. Whilst imprisoned, she went on hunger strikes to demand recognition as a political prisoner, and was consequently brutally force-fed by prison officers. She once jumped from a balcony in Holloway Prison with the idea that, ‘one great tragedy may save many others’, highlighting her complete willingness to die for the Suffragette movement.
Her death was certainly a tragedy and, although her actions were at times questionable, they were all done in service of a cause that I feel nobody could argue against in the modern day. At such an unstable time in British and global politics, it is perhaps good to reflect on the actions of those that made it possible for everyone to have their rightful say in the way in which their country is governed. As much as our jockeys still have a seemingly neverending line of barriers to surmount as they charge across the political landscape, we can be sure that we have women such as Emily Davison to thank for getting us moving in the right direction.
It is disappointing then, to see how swathes of our electorate have become disillusioned with politics, and therefore forfeit their right to vote when the time comes for another general election. The group that bizarrely takes prize for most apathetic is the 18-24s. For this demographic, voter turnout has stagnated, with no more than 55% voting in any general election since 1992. I know some people may think that this isn’t strange at all, as every young person is lazy and unengaged, right? As someone who both falls within this age range and is also keenly interested in politics, I can assure you that the two are not mutually exclusive. There are many young people just like me, who care about their future and want their voices and their votes to make a difference. The problem lies mainly with the lack of trust we have in politicians and the disparaging quality of the “first-past-the-post” electoral system.
Tony Blair tried to establish a ‘Cult of Youth’ by rubbing shoulders with celebrities and constantly talking about a new, fresh Britain. Ultimately, he failed with 18-24s turnout at an abysmal 40% and 38% for the 2001 and 2005 Elections respectively. David Cameron even tried to start a strange ‘Hug a Hoodie’ campaign, but still the 2015 turnout was 44%. YouGov have suggested that young voter turnout for the most recent election has soared to 58%, which is a phenomenal increase but it is still not good enough. The effects of these elections and referendums could alter our futures completely, yet people still choose to turn a blind eye. The deal we secure from Brexit negotiations will not only affect our lives, but those of our children and grandchildren. We, the youth of Britain, have a duty to reignite our burning passion for democracy, and create an overwhelming force that cannot be ignored or forgotten, just as the Suffragettes did in their time. Change that spans generations can be started from the smallest of actions, like just putting a cross on a ballot paper.
Lauren Goodfellow is a second-year Biomedical Science student at The University of Manchester