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Newest voters in Britain’s oldest town

11th May 2017
Posted by BBC Essex News

Colchester: Meet the newest voters in Britain's oldest recorded town

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Between 2015 and 2016 the number of registered voters in Colchester went up 9%, from 122,000 to 133,775

The voting population of Colchester has expanded more than anywhere else in the UK in percentage terms, partly because of the rise in the number of people turning 18. So what do Britain's oldest recorded town's newest voters make of the looming general election?

"If it weren't for the National Health Service, my mum would be dead," says 18-year-old Ciara Wilkinson.

Her mother, who has had diabetes since childhood, has recently undergone a below-the-knee amputation and is a regular hospital visitor.

Ciara says she has seen first hand, as a result of her mother's experiences, a growing shortage of staff, beds and resources within the NHS.

She is a reminder to anybody who assumes young people might not care about the NHS that this is not the case.

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To find out what politicians really think about an issue, Ciara Wilkinson checks their voting records online

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How Colchester voted in the 2015 election

Ciara witnessed how it took her mother two months to get the right benefits sorted out once out of hospital. Streamlining the benefits system, increasing NHS spending and lowering tuition fees are for her the key issues of the election.

And while Ciara admits to trawling through MP voting records to find out what they really think, her fellow 18-year-old Kemal Ali confesses he has very little interest in politics.

"I really don't know much about politics. Honestly, I am almost clueless about it.

"I don't really watch or read the news. There is a lot of talk about and I find it quite boring.

"And I feel like such a small number in comparison with the whole country, that I'm just an individual and cannot change anything on my own."

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Kemal Ali says he feels disconnected from politics because he believes his vote has little impact

He does, however, voice concerns about the long-term effects of certain medicines and believes marijuana should be made legal – particularly for conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, in which a beneficial effect has been found.

Sarah Harpin, 19, wants mental health – along with NHS and university tuition fees – put centre stage by all the main parties.

She herself has suffered with mental health issues and knows she is far from being alone.

"I want as much to be done with mental health as possible – there should be help out there, there should be more funding for mental health services."

Her vote, she says, would also be clinched by any party seeking to reduce or abolish university tuition fees.

English universities can currently charge up to £9,250 a year.

Although she would not let the fees prevent her going to university, Sarah said: "I hate the idea that I may be going into so much debt."

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Sarah Harpin wants mental health put centre stage by all the main parties

Between 2015 and 2016 the number of registered voters in the Colchester borough went up 9%, from 122,774 to 133,775.

The reason, according to the Office of National Statistics, was a surge in interest in last year's EU Referendum.

Poppy Borges-Wilby, 18, was caught up in that surge.

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Poppy Borges-Wilby would like to see a reversal of the Brexit decision

"I just missed out on having a vote in the EU Referendum," she said. "And now I want to be able to vote – and if there is a chance that Brexit could be pushed back and we could stay in the EU then I would go for that.

"Then again though, we're not voting for a government but a member of parliament. So you've got to think about the MP and not just those at the top."

All but one of the Colchester Institute students who spoke to the BBC have already decided where their vote is most likely to go.

Simeon Moreira, 20, remains undecided – a fact that might surprise some, because having voted in 2015 he is a relative veteran when it comes to general elections.

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Simeon Moreira is unsure how he will vote. But he is paying very close attention to what the different parties are saying

Citing the NHS, national debt, the shortage of housing and immigration as the issues he cared most about, Simeon said: "It seems we are trying to solve these issues by having to choose between the parties that have created the problems."

And getting impartial, factual information on which to base his vote is becoming increasingly difficult, he says.

"Facts don't seem to matter quite as much and I think that's a product of our culture with superficial television programming, in which we take the headlines and not the details.

"Yes, there's more (information) out there, but there's less debate and people are not being challenged."

Jessica Shaw, 18, agrees.

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Jessica Shaw might get some of her political information online, but she will only discuss such matters around the table with people she knows and trusts

"There was so much coverage of the EU Referendum but we got lots of opinions and no facts."

But while Jessica, for whom the NHS again was a key issue, might read or watch items about politics online, she prefers not to engage with it there.

"I might watch a video on Facebook but I would debate it around the table with family."

For Joe Green, 18, political content on social media is less a vehicle for debate than laughter or exasperation.

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Joe Green says he is regularly fascinated by politics on social media, not least because of some of the comments people make online

"I mainly follow things because they are funny."

He says he followed the former UKIP leader Nigel Farage primarily for the comments other people would leave on his social media posts.

"It is funny to me that people would come up with these comments and you wonder what they are taking."

Joe's key concern is that the NHS be kept in public ownership.

And he does not care for Theresa May. Asked why, he responds: "I don't know, I just don't like her."

Some of the students reported feeling "bombarded" by political information online.

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Colchester – or Camulodunum as it was referred to by Dio Cassius early in the 3rd Century – lies on the River Colne

Simeon sees political debate online as divisive – in which those with the most extreme views shout the loudest.

"It allows people to remain in their own bubble – people can follow the people they agree with and read the sites which see the world as they do."

For Ciara, however, the internet has enabled her to discuss the issues that concern her on a global scale. She tells of a conversation with a friend in Florida about the differences between healthcare in the UK and the US.

Such conversations, she says, both challenge and reinforce her views on the issues that matter to her.

And from such global discussions, local votes will be cast.

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