Meet the first-time voters of Hicksville, Ohio

"Even though some of them have been indoctrinated at home, they are open-minded."

Hicksville's high school is housed in a state-of-the-art red-brick building, opened in 2009, on the east side of town. Students spill corridors filled with lockers in classic American high school style. On the day I visit, government teacher Dave Blue is taking two senior-year classes, most of whom will be eligible to vote for the first time tomorrow.

Among them, some are simply not interested. “I don't really pay attention to [politics],” says one 18-year-old student, Chad Klema, while another, Dean Conley simply says “I'm not voting.” When this gets an anguished response from the more politically active of his peers, he defends himself. “I just hate hearing about it. I don't think any president can fix this.”

Many are entirely disillusioned with the political process as a whole. “Neither candidate is great” is a common factor among many – though not all – students in both classes. “There are negative ads before every video on YouTube,” says 18-year-old Morgan Hahn. “It's not cool.”

Many of them, however, are more politically aware. Each lesson has a clearly dominant voice; obviously old rivals, they tell me they often spar with each other on political issues. Andrew Willis, the most powerful voice in the morning lesson, is a staunch and vocal Democrat. “I'm pro-choice, and gay marriage. I don't like that the rich get the tax cuts – Bush's tax cuts added to the deficit.” What does he think of the Republican challenger? “I think Romney is really, really untrustworthy. I think he changes his opinions to get elected.”

“He's a political rat!” he says with venom.

The afternoon class, by comparison, is all about Austin Laney – whose conservatism Willis tells me he likes to goad. “[Romney's] not just for one part of the country, he's for all of it,” Laney tells me. Even for the middle class? “Yeah.”

“Obama doesn't know what he's talking about,” he continues. “I don't like Obama. Romney's not that great – but he's better.”

Their teacher, Dave Blue, is one of those teachers that all his former pupils remember with a grin. I first meet him in the Brickhouse, Hicksville's local sports bar – I'm introduced by several former pupils. “You have to meet Dave,” they tell me. He makes quite an entrance, wearing a long leather trenchcoat and a battered stetson, and orders a whisky.

Blue has been helping his pupils negotiate the minefields of American politics for 28 years. I ask him if the students he sees generally lean one way or another. “I'd say [they're] more Republican than Democrat,” he tells me, “but Obama's got a good chance among these kids. They're young, they're willing to listen. Their minds are reasonably flexible. Even though some of them have been indoctrinated at home, they are open-minded. Some are probably going to rebel from mum and dad.”

When I ask the afternoon class if their political beliefs have been affected by their parents, there is a chorus of “yes” – except from Laney, who tells me scornfully that his parents are Democrats.

“I could go either way,” says another pupil, Charlie Guto. What would sway him? “I dunno.” He stops to think. “I'm against abortion. I don't think it's right.” Does that mean Romney's on his side on that one? “Yeah. But I feel like whoever wins, no one's going to fix it right away.”

Some of them have been under pressure from their classmates – but Shane Bostik is not giving in. “I'm on the border still,” he says, looking at Laney with a grin. “I've had Austin trying to persuade me to go for Romney... but I think I'm sticking with Obama. I think things are getting better each year.”

“They are starting to realise,” says Dave Blue proudly after the bell has gone and the students have joined the throng in the corridors heading to their next class, “that the real world is not that far away.”

He gestures expansively around his classroom. “And this is a part of it.”

A Democrat volunteer encourages people to turn out in Ohio. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Show Hide image

Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.