Photos: Michael McNeil
Michael McNeil has spent the last few weeks walking along Bristol’s waterways and doorknocking on barges. A boater from Kingswood, he’s been trying to convince other boaters to register to vote there.
“[The constutuency] encompasses quite a lot of the river just coming into Bristol,” he tells me. Kingswood is a marginal seat, with the Conservative MP Chris Skidmore beating the Labour candidate by 7,500 votes in the 2017 General Election.
McNeil is a volunteer canvasser, part of a national campaign to inform boaters of their right to vote, entertainingly called Votey McVoteface, and encouraging them to vote in marginal seats. People without a fixed address – boaters, vandwellers, homeless people and and the 5% of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers who are nomadic – are in a unique position to pick the constituency they vote in, as long as they have a local connection.
Voting somewhere you don’t have a local connection to is electoral fraud, but for boaters who have to move regularly as part of their license, many in Bristol will already have a connection to Kingswood or North East Somerset, another marginal seat held by Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Operation Votey McVoteface
Around 175,000 people in the UK are registered as no fixed abode, but only around 3,000 are registered to vote, says McNeil. To remedy this, a group of liveaboard boaters started a campaign to get boaters across the country to vote in marginal seats. And, almost as important, they named their campaign after the now famous polar research ship, Boaty McBoatface.
Liveaboard boaters without a permanent mooring are classed as Continuous Cruisers because they have to keep moving. Because of this, many have local connections in more than one constituency, so have a unique opportunity to vote more tactically.
Boaters are canvassing in Bristol and Bath, Greater London, Leeds and Hebson Bridge, Milton Keynes, and Nottingham and Derby.
“Our lives are affected just as much as people who are on the grid,” says McNeil.
“A lot of people living in these areas, whose lives are affected by how these areas are run as well as how the country is run, don’t realise they have a say in that process,” he adds.
While they don’t support a particular party, they don’t pretend to be impartial. Their main aim is to get the Conservatives out of power, and McNeil is vocal about why.
“We’re making sure that those people can use that vote. And that they use it in such a manner as to get the Tories out [so we have a] better shot at quality of life in the country.
“Even if you’re not a Labour supporter, think about the last nine years,” he says.
But it’s more personal than that. Conservative MPs and councillors have passed legislation that many Gypsy, Roma and Traveller campaigners have said are anti-Traveller and othering. Boaters aren’t affected by the government’s recently released consultation on criminalising trespass or the Bristol Conservatives’ motion to apply for city-wide injunctions against unauthorised encampments, but there is a piece of legislation that, if passed, would have a huge impact on their cost of living.
Boats use red diesel, which is much cheaper than white diesel, to heat and power their boat, “For people who liveaboard it’s a necessity; they need it to move around and to heat their house, [currently] it’s not taxed as if it were a leisure item. The current government are thinking about taxing it as the same rate as regular diesel, which would obviously increase the cost of living for people who are liveaboard boaters.”
Canvassing barges ‘a touch different’ to canvassing houses
Canvassing homes that move around is “a touch different to how normal canvassing operates,” explains McNeill, who’s mainly gone around Bristol harbour and the river. You’d normally be able to split into groups and walk up and down streets, ticking off houses as you go.
“Canvassing a tow path, you can do the same path and get different boaters, and conversely you can canvas in different places and find some of the boaters that you hit a few days ago. So we have to be more coordinated.”
McNeil has a message for boaters who are on the fence about voting.
“Regardless of what your opinions are on the opposition, if you’re on the fence about voting please don’t lose this opportunity to stop the Tories selling us down the river.”