Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Save Election Night - a silly, insular campaign

A lot of fluster in the political blogosphere about an apparent plan by some councils to move their general election count from the Thursday night to Friday morning. Jonathan Isaby, Mark Pack, Iain Dale and others are campaigning under the banner of 'Save General Election Night'.

On balance, I agree. But I can't let some of the proponents of this campaign get away with some of the statements they are making:

- 'It's tradition dammit'. Well, only up to a point. There are many councils which have only very recently come over to the idea of counting on the Thursday night - some as recently as 2001 or 2005. Among the seats which traditionally counted the next day were St Ives. So if you want tradition in places like that then the count should be held over.

- 'there really is no valid reason for doing so apart from sheer incompetence and laziness'. NO! There are plenty of very valid reasons why the count should take place the next day. Chief among these is that most of the staff involved in the count will have been working in polling stations all through the day. They will be knackered (as party staff will be) and mistakes will creep in.

Surely it is better to get the right result than a quick result?

Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. If you can have completely fresh counting staff then mistakes are less likely to occur. (Although there is nothing you can do to get fresh party staff!)

- 'We want to know who won as soon as possible'. I agree. To me the worst part of election night are the exit polls and the pointless pontificating by the networks on the basis that these exit polls are both accurate and can be translated into seats. They may be the former, but they are not the latter. And so I want to get into the meaty results sooner rather than later. But we should be trying to discourage authorities from seeing themselves as being in a race. I cannot believe that a count that is completed in 50 minutes is going to be perfect (I've met enough returning officers). In a safe seat (they tend to be) the outcome might not be affected, but let's make sure that the figures are accurate, rather than just broadly right.

And let's face it, the real fun of election night is not knowing which party will win - that's almost always a foregone conclusion. The real fun is the individual results - the upsets, the shocks and the rumours. Where would '97 have been without the Portillo moment? And in 2005, Lib Dems up and down the country were looking out for Solihull (betting slips in hand).

The campaign proponents are completely right to say that the 24 hour news agenda means that Friday counting would be a retrograde step. I also tend to agree with them that hiding ballot boxes away for 12 hours would mean the danger of fraud or mistake might rise compared with an immediate count using fresh counting staff.

But they are completely wrong to say that counting on the Friday would mean that no one could follow the results coming in. At the moment, having no results before 11pm and no flood before about 1am totally excludes children who have school the next day as well as the vast majority who are not able to stay up through the night. In that respect, this really is an insular campaign. The results programme might have high ratings but I guess that most people either switch off before midnight, are asleep on the sofa or are anoraks.

If you shift the count to the Friday then schools can use the experience to communicate real life politics to pupils, the majority of people who don't like to go to bed at 5am can be involved and the majority of the country can follow it as we work. A perfect solution - absolutely not, but only about as imperfect as counting through the night.

Sorry, I won't be joining the 'Save General Election Night' campaign.

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