Harry Leslie Smith, a survivor of the Great Depression, a second world war RAF veteran and an activist spoke last Thursday at the Manchester’s Students’ Union on the importance of registering to vote. Harry has written a number of books and often speaks publicly about income inequality, public services, and what he sees as the diminishing prospects for young people.
Harry’s most notable and unforgettable speech was made at the 2014 Labour Party Conference, where he warned the audience of the dangers of losing the NHS. Harry brought the Labour delegates to their feet and reduced some of them to tears with the plea: “Mr Cameron, keep your mitts off my NHS.”
On Thursday, Harry’s speech was as equally impassioned as he addressed students on the importance of registering to vote and then using that vote to secure a better future. The event was organised by No Vote No Voice, who also had a voter registration bus on campus signing students up on the day.
No Vote No Voice is the Daily Mirror’s campaign to encourage everyone in Britain to take advantage of their right to vote. They joined forces with Bite The Ballot, Unite Union, Mass1, Hope not Hate, NUS and NUT to launch the campaign. It is non-partisan and aims to register a million new voters by the general election.
According to a report by the Electoral Commission at least six million people were not registered to vote in the last general election.
With young people the situation is worse, with less than half being registered, and then less than half of those registered actually turning out–so that means only around 25 per cent of 18-24-year olds voted in the last election.
This situation is likely to be impacted even more due to the Government’s new Individual Electoral Registration scheme–now each individual person has to register, rather than one from each household.
Before October 2014, first year students tended to be registered by their college or university who acted as their “head of the household”; this ensured almost 100 per cent registration. Due to the swift change in legislation this is no longer the case, and student registration has fallen considerably.
Harry’s speech aimed to address this worrying issue and encouraged those in the audience to spread the message of importance of voting.
Harry opened his speech saying: “The defining moments in our country’s history have been decided by elections”, and he declared that “if power is held by the few the many will suffer a lifetime of misery”.
He continued: “If you don’t register to vote, your society will die along with your hopes and dreams for a decent life for yourselves and your offspring. You won’t have more than a bread and drippings life if you don’t register to vote. I know this because I am not a historian, but I am an eye witness to history as I turned 92 last month.”
Harry went on to parallel his generation with our own saying his were also “cynical about politicians and distrusted elections and they only seemed to maintain misery and ensured that we were denied healthcare, affordable housing, a proper education and a chance to make decent lives for ourselves.”
However he said his “generation realised a simple fact of life that if you sit on the sidelines of life others will decide for you whether you win or lose.
“This election may go down as the most important election of your generation, like 1945 was for mine. So it would be a great misfortune for your future and Britain’s future to not participate in something that will make a difference for good or evil to your life. Regardless of your political beliefs you must register to vote, then you must go on Election Day and vote with your head, your heart, for a new tomorrow.
Some have called my generation the greatest, but I think your generation will be the greatest, because you will finish the job my generation started. If you don’t vote your future will be handed to the 1 per cent to do with as they like. Austerity is not just about fixing the country’s finances, it is about turning us into a Downton Abbey where the 99 per cent serve the elite”.
After the speech Harry answered a few questions from students. The first asked him whether he believed in tactical voting. His response was a resounding no, reiterating that you must vote for the party you believe in yourself.
Another final year student nurse asked if Harry had any ideas how to encourage and inspire people to vote, if they are disillusioned about the political parties. Harry responded simply by stating he would suggest you tell them to read his latest book ‘Harry’s Last Stand’.
When questioned on Russell Brand and whether he was a help or a hindrance, Harry responded saying it was downright irresponsible to advocate not to vote. However he suggested there may be a planned debate between him and Russell Brand in the future.
Finally he was asked what he thought of David Cameron, to which he said “He’s a personable looking guy… enough said, soon is mended.”
The deadline to register to vote in the general election is 20th April. You can register online here: https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote