Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Fabulousness of General Election Night

Any political activist will wax lyrical about the various joys of Election Night. Nothing beats being with the friends and colleagues you've been slogging your guts out with as the results come in overnight. The excitement of victory, the disappointemnt of defeat, all enhanced by the surreality of total exhaustion.

Most activists at an election count, which starts at 10pm when the polls closed, will have been up delivering leaflets at the crack of dawn. They will have been on the go all day, stopping only briefly for refreshment. Despite every part of their body aching, the adrenaline keeps them going until the polls close and then through the count. If they're not at the count, they are generally congregating in some place consuming alcohol and watching Dimbleby and others fill in time before the first results come in after midnight.

Now it appears that more and more Councils are going to move towards counting on the day after the election and Liberal Democrat Voice reports on a Tory inspired campaign to Save General Election Night, reported on Liberal Democrat Voice.

The wonderful, wise and usually but not always right Dr Pack thinks that keeping the counts on a Thursday night is a good idea because:

"The drama of election night is one of the rare occasions when a mass public audience gets interested in the details of politics and hears news and information at more than nano-soundbite length."

As not much else happens overnight, the election results get more and better media coverage than they do during the day, when there are more interruptions from other stories.

Switching counts to Friday risks having the immediate news dominated by exit polls – i.e. largely about the UK-wide picture, whilst squeezing out the stories about the huge variations taking place all round the country. (A more partisan point is that it also means reports are likely to be pretty much all about the Labour/Conservative battle as the overall Lib Dem share of the vote in exit polls – unless very dramatic – is likely only to be a very rough indictator of the party’s performance in terms of seats. Saying “… and we don’t know about the Lib Dems” is likely to pale very quickly.)

Particularly in the internet age, speculation and wild gossip quickly fills a news vacuum. Better to be providing hard information sooner rather than later.

Quick counts provide more security against problems with ballot boxes being tampered with or lost. Serious allegations of this only happen rarely, but it is certainly not unknown."

Most normal people I know spend the late-night-results-coming in bit tucked up in their beds and find out what's happened in the morning before they go out for the day, but what would be so wrong about them finding out when they come in at tea time? If they're really interested, there are enough sources of information as to what's going on and if they like they can watch the drama unfold while they're awake.

Dr Pack also knows as well as I do that Simon Hughes has been wrongly predicted by one or other election programme to have lost his seat in every election since 1983, so it's wrong to suggest that somehow the late night programme is a guardian against wild rumours spreading.

He also mentions the security issue if the counts are delayed. In a Euro election, we manage to keep our ballot boxes secure for 3 days before the Count, but for this proposal, we are talking about 12-16 hours. I hope as well that we'll be moving to some sort of fair voting system within the next few years and then I think it would be better if the counts were held during the day, particularly if they are manual.

While I love the drama of Election Night, and I do agree that there's nothing quite like it, and it would be really hard to get to sleep not knowing whether all our hard work had paid off, I'm not so motivated to fight for it and I certainly won't be signing up to any Tory driven knee jerk reaction campaign on the issue. To a certain extent I see it as our responsibility to try to engage the public during the campaign so that they feel they have an interest in the outcome. If they're genuinely on tenterhooks about the result, it won't really matter when they are announced because they'll make a point of finding out what's happened.

There are plenty sensible reasons why the counts should take place on the day after an election, too. It just makes it easier and cheaper for Councils to organise.

I suppose what really cured me of my love of overnight counts was a couple of hours spent in a layby on the A92, a few miles south of Glenrothes, in the middle of the night in the freezing pouring rain, when I broke down on the way back from the by-election count last November.

I suppose one reason that Dr Pack didn't mention as a good reason to have the count overnight is that it enables the new Goverment to start doing things on the Friday after they were elected. Remember how Labour hit the ground running by announcing that they were giving control of interest rates to the Bank of England? If they leave the results until late Friday, there will be no point in announcing much before the Monday news cycles. Is that such a bad thing, though?

Moving the counts to the Friday would be the end of an era. I'm not convinced that it would be such a bad thing, though.


Paul Walter said...

Caron - an excellent post. One small anorakky point though - the 1997 election was held on Thursday 1st May. The announcement of Bank of England independence wasn't made until 11am the following Tuesday, 6th May.

See statement on Bank of England web site:

"At 11.00 am on 6 May 1997 the new UK government announced that it had granted the Bank of England operational independence with respect to the implementation of monetary policy, subject to an RPIX inflation target of 2½% per year."


Mark Pack said...

Good to be reminded of my falibility :-)

I think you know my views on most of the points, but just to clarify about the spread of gossip. Yup, it's a near election night tradition for ITV to get Simon Hughes's result wrong - but my point is that overall, the longer you wait between event finishing and news being published, the more gossip etc. there will be. A really short gap doesn't stop it, but the longer the gap the more there is.

Norman said...

I very much agree. By the time 10.00pm comes I'm usually knackered. If you get up early the next morning to go to the count you are so much fresher and can enjoy the day better.


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