What the UK can learn from Stacey Abrams

Mar 29, 2021

Following the American elections last year, voting rights activist Stacey Abrams was widely heralded as the woman responsible for turning the traditionally red state of Georgia blue for the first time in over 20 years. Media profiles of Abrams in the days after the election focused on her narrow defeat in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race, which she claimed was due to voter suppression efforts by her opponent Brian Kemp (who was then Georgia’s Secretary of State). Following the race, she refused to concede and founded Fair Fight Action, an organisation devoted to combating voter suppression. Over the next two years, they worked in coalition with other organisations to register an astounding 800,000 new voters in Georgia. 

As an American, I’ve followed Abrams’s work for years, and I’m thrilled to see her begin to receive the global recognition that she richly deserves. Yet the focus on her 2018 defeat by many media outlets diminishes the true extent of her work. In interviews about her efforts, Abrams routinely makes a point of noting that her fight to expand voting rights has been a long one. She often speaks about her time as the Democratic leader of the Georgia State House, where she carried around a USB stick containing a Powerpoint presentation with her 10-year plan to put Georgia into the democratic column, ready to plead her case to anyone who would listen. 

While Abrams is certainly a remarkable organiser, she is no magician. Her success in turning Georgia blue largely stemmed from the fact that she targeted her efforts at empowering and engaging those who have traditionally felt excluded from the political process -- namely young people, women, and minority communities. 

This community-level grassroots organising is sorely needed here in the UK. Only 47 percent of 18 to 24-year‑olds voted in 2019, as opposed to 74 percent of over-65s. Although the 2019 general election returned the highest ever number of MPs under 29 (21), the average age of a person elected to parliament in 2019 was 51. And although the 2019 parliament is the most diverse in British history, only around 34% of MPs are women, and just 1 in 10 are non-white

There are talented activists like Abrams in towns and cities across the UK. If we are to make democracy work for everyone, we must ensure that their voices are heard and their efforts are nurtured. When young activists from communities across the country are empowered, they inspire others in their community to become engaged. 

Real and sustained change begins by meeting people where they are. At a time when trust in government is at an all time low, a new generation of leaders who are spearheading community-level initiatives that make a real and tangible difference to people’s lives can provide the antidote to the rising tide of voter disengagement. In an era when our society often seems more divided than ever, looking to the grassroots can provide the answer to some of our biggest challenges. 

MacKenzie works in communications, and is active across both British and American politics. She was previously Head of Communications for the European Movement UK, where she worked with MPs from across the political spectrum. She was also a part of the People’s Vote campaign’s digital communications team during the 2019 general election. 

MacKenzie holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a minor in Political Science from Arizona State University, and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in the History of International Relations from the London School of Economics.

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