In the latest in our series of election blogs, Ewan Aitken, a former Labour councillor and current chief executive of homelessness charity Cyrenians, argues that a healthy democracy depends on empowering the most vulnerable and disenfranchised voices in our society.  

As a recovering politician, the phrase ‘General Election’ stirs up a number of emotions in me. Apprehension, hope, dread – they run the full gamut.  Now I am safely out of that world, working as the Chief Executive of Cyrenians for 10 years this year, I would like to say that I’m more ambivalent to the transfer of power in Westminster. But the reality is, these days I am more acutely aware of the ramifications of our political leadership than I ever was.

The last ten years have been tumultuous ones and it is safe to say that the choices our leaders have made – both good and bad – have been felt most acutely by many of people we work with.

Cyrenians is a charity that tackles the causes and consequences of homelessness in my hometown of Edinburgh and its surrounds. Our services work to help people in key transition points in their life, which research shows are the times in which people are most likely to end up experiencing homelessness.

We have mediation services which help mend relationships between teenagers and their parents as they transition from childhood to adulthood. We help prison leavers to find and maintain a tenancy. We support people coming out of rehabilitation clinics to rebuild their lives and support hospital inpatients who are at risk of being discharged onto the streets to keep their accommodation. 

Our organisation is in a unique position. Our prevention services help people at every stage of life so have access to the expertise of a wide range of people. We work hard to draw on that to inform the work we do to influence political strategy.

‘Participation’ – as it is termed –  is baked into everything we do, whether we are approaching the design of a new service or advising the government on new legislation.

Now, as the 4th of July looms, I have been thinking about the ultimate form of participation, something that we all are being called on to do: vote.

Countries are not unlike charities. The way they are run – how their services are designed – should be in consultation with and for the people. Sadly, it is often those who are most let down by our country who become most disenfranchised and unlikely to vote. Why bother, they say, when nothing ever changes? But without these people’s voices, it is a sure-fire guarantee that nothing ever will change. And so the vicious cycle continues.

At Cyrenians we have done a number of outreach programmes within several of our services to support people who previously haven’t voted to cast their ballot for the candidates who best represent them – and I would like to see programmes like this rolled out across the UK.

In order for our democracy to properly function, we need to make sure that everyone’s voice is being heard, and voting is the first place to start. Otherwise our politicians will continue to pander to their core voting base and discount the wants and needs of the majority.

Despite the emotional rollercoaster of every election cycle, I admit that this time I am feeling more hopeful than I have before other elections. Whilst there are still challenges in engaging every demographic, there has been a notable increase in interest from the people I have been speaking to in my day-to-day life. Whoever wins, I hope they are chosen by the majority and not by the few. 

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