Features Editor Ishaan Rahman interviews Hugh Atkinson, who is part of a group in the International Relations department trying to boost voter turnout in the upcoming London Elections.

A group in King’s College London’s International Relations department is eager to get people living in London out to vote in May’s elections. UK election laws say that both British and Commonwealth citizens are eligible to vote in elections. Mayoral and Assembly Elections were originally scheduled for May 2020 though were cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

This year, the primary focus is the London Mayoral Election, where incumbent Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping to win a second term against his Conservative opponent Shaun Bailey. Elections for the London Assembly, local councils, police commissioners, and Scottish and Welsh legislatures will also be held on the same day.

Hugh Atkinson, an MA International Relations student, says “a lot of students…aren’t really aware or engaged in the Mayoral Election process”. He and is fellow King’s students are teaming up with a community organising group called Citizens UK, who say their goal is to “develop local leaders, strengthen local organisations which are the lifeblood of their communities.”

Turnout in the previous 2016 London Mayoral Election was a lacklustre 45%. In contrast, turnout reached almost 70% in the General Election a year following the Mayoral vote. As a rule of thumb, local elections tend to draw out fewer voters than national Elections. Almost 40% of Londoners were born outside of the UK, including many from the Commonwealth nations of India, Australia, Canada and others. Atkinson believes that their involvement, provided they are eligible to vote, could be key to increasing overall turnout.

Atkinson argues that low awareness is to blame for lack of participation in local elections, saying “with [Coronavirus] going on right now people don’t often have the capacity to deal with local issues”. Though he believes that the London mayor has significant power that can improve people’s lives and if you “highlight the issues at stake” engagement will improve.

According to Citizens UK’s manifesto, those issues include youth safety, homelessness, a living wage, climate change and migrant services (e.g. English lessons and hate crime reform). Atkinson made clear that neither Citizens UK nor himself are explicitly endorsing a candidate. They hope to lobby all the mayoral candidates to get bipartisan consensus on these issues. He believes that the Mayor can make meaningful change in those areas via their ability to “allocate funds”. The Mayor is responsible for a £17 billion budget that is used to finance Transport for London (TFL), the Metropolitan Police, fire brigade and other public services across the Greater London Area (GLA). However, the central UK government also foots the bill for many services within the GLA.

Atkinson’s personal focus is hate crimes, where he says the current process “is not very clear….people don’t really know how to report hate crimes” based on their surveys. This is in addition to the problem of some feeling “ashamed or scared to report the crime”. Citizens UK’s goal is to create a hate crime reporting system that is consistent across all London boroughs instead of the current model which differs by local authority. They also want to ensure greater support for victims. Hate crimes have spiked in recent years both after the divisive EU Referendum in 2016 and, recently, against those of Chinese descent during the Coronavirus pandemic. As someone of East-Asian origin, the latter issue personally resonates with Atkinson and is what motivated him to get involved with the campaign.

Citizens UK will be fielding questions to Mayoral Candidates on April 28th at the Mayoral Accountability Assembly, which is open to the public. Ahead of that meeting, the group will continue to build its support and engage with community groups. Atkinson urges students to get involved saying “without the numbers, any engagement with the mayoral candidates is not going to get anywhere”. He hopes that with help and support, they can get all of the candidates to agree to certain policies on the aforementioned issues.

The London Mayoral and Assembly Elections will take place on May 6th; all British and Commonwealth citizens over 18 can register to vote here. To learn more about or get involved with Citizens UK visit them on Facebook or their website. For any further questions contact Hugh Atkinson (hugh.atkinson@kcl.ac.uk).

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