At a party in east London recently an American, here on a temporary student visa, put a question to me after I told him I had been out canvassing for Labour. “What’s that like, being American and getting involved in British politics?” You never get used to these questions as an immigrant. They seem innocent enough but they call into question the very sense of belonging you’ve worked so hard at creating over the years. I was born and raised in America, but I am also an Irish national, and just moved to London from Belfast two months ago. Identity is a sensitive subject for immigrants, and this question possessed none of the nuance or curiosity required to have a meaningful conversation about the topic of political participation and outsiderness. It assumes that my Americanness, a very deep and meaningful part of my identity, somehow matters more to my political activity than the parts of me that are Irish, social democrat, a British resident, or Christian. At least that’s how I took it.
I responded a bit more aggressively than I had intended. I blurted out, “I live in London so it’s like being a tax payer with a right to vote.” And then it started to pour out of me. “I’m outraged, as someone with aspirations to own a home one day, by the crippling housing crisis; I cannot believe that in such a prosperous country a million people have been forced to use food banks; I’ve seen my wife’s mental health affected by the stress of a zero-hours contract while working as a mental health practitioner; and I’m inspired by Ed Miliband’s vision of a fairer more equal society and economy that works better for everyone”. We stopped talking at that point, but I guess on reflection, that my Americanness, a nourishing and delightful part of my composition, is far less important than my identity as a British tax payer, an aspirational home owner, and being someone who wants to have children soon but worries about the cost of child care. The only belief I can really say is explicitly informed by being American is that the NHS needs to be protected from privatisation. Surrendering health care to the forces of the market would be disastrous. Just look at America.
The politics of the Green Party don’t resonate with me, but their leader, Australian immigrant Natalie Bennet, couldn’t have said it better when she described her reasons for getting active in British politics. “I came as a visitor, I loved the British way of life, I loved the traditions, the culture, and I decided to stay and make this my home. I went into politics because I want to improve that.” It’s a tremendous privilege to have the right to vote in a country you’ve adopted as your new home. I can’t think of a single other activity capable of giving such a meaningful sense of civic belonging. Like millions of others in the United Kingdom, On 7 May, I will walk to my polling station, and share in a collective decision making process that will set out the future direction of the country. That’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly, and because it’s such a weighty choice, I actually feel a developing sense of psychic rootedness in British life.
My new home, for however long I live here, is Walthamstow. I am committed to putting this part of London, indeed the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland, on a better trajectory. That’s why I signed up to campaign for our local Labour candidate, Stella Creasy. In true Labour fashion, Stella and her team have been welcoming to me and my wife. And you know what? No one’s ever asked me what it’s like to be an American campaigning for Labour. There’s a quiet acceptance that in this globally connected world of ours, many life stories connect in various locations, but wherever you live, there is a duty to try do your part to build a better society. That’s why I am voting Labour.
I write about faith, democracy and culture from a Christian and centre-left perspective.