Saturday, May 07, 2005

A long day's journey into night

I've only really just surfaced after Thursday's excitement.

Those of you who aren't involved in campaigning may think that after all the posters are put up and the leaflets done that we leave it all to the general public to go and vote while we sit down and drink coffee, safe in the knowledge of a job well done.

Not a bit of it.

Election days typically start before dawn with deliverers scuttling around the patch dropping 'wake-up' leaflets through doors of known voters. During the day, we'll run round the polling stations, keeping an eye on how busy they are. We'll target areas and make sure that our voters get out - the days of driving elderly ladies to the polling station are disappearing thanks to postal voting. Even in the last hours, we'll make sure that our voters are getting through the door.

We had an interesting time this year. Our polling agents found local councillors standing inside the polling station and vehicles festooned with campaign posters in the car park, so a quick complaint to the presiding officer saw them moved on and off. Respect were a particular problem in Sparkbrook and Small Heath, with reports of their campaigners inside polling stations attempting to canvass support until the presiding officers intervened. Incidentally, Respect only had two candidates in the city in this election - the other was in Perry Barr. That didn't stop them plastering large parts of the city with election placards, even in wards outside those two constituencies.

After the polls close, there's time for a sandwich and a change of clothes ready for the final chapter in the election - the count. For any political anorak, this is one of the highlights - getting up close and personal with the process. It does feel a little odd to be wearing a suit and a rosette while wandering through the party crowds in the centre of Birmingham on a Thursday night, but if you can't take a joke, you shouldn't have joined. Even though your feet ache, the tiredness seems to melt away as the count progresses. Most of us will have been up for around 24 hours by the time the result comes through, but we're still standing at 5am.

We watch the votes being counted, gleaning what information we can for future campaign targetting and making educated guesses about the result. There's also a chance to catch up on all the gossip about the various candidates and even to chat to some of the opposition.

This year in Birmingham, we knew that the Labour vote would be under pressure and there was intense interest in Edgbaston - under attack from the Tories; Northfield, because of the Rover problems; Sparkbrook and Small Heath, with the largest Muslim population of any UK constituency and subject to a well-funded Respect campaign; Hodge Hill, the site of a by-election 200 days previously; and Yardley, with John H trying yet again.

Predictably, while Labour majorities generally took a kicking (Liam Byrne took advantage of a higher general election turnout to increase his and narrowly missed being the seat that gave Labour an overall majority, losing out to Corby), we held all of the seats apart from Yardley, despite a few nervous moments.

The biggest shock of the night didn't come from Birmingham, but from our neighbours in Solihull. This is one of the truest-blue places in the country - it has returned a Tory MP for the 60 years that the seat has existed. Until Thursday, when the hard work of Lorely Burt paid off and she took the seat for the Liberal Democrats, aided by a eported increase of 400% in postal votes to deliver a slim, 279 vote majority.

The only drawback to being at the count is that you are often cut off from the wider picture, so you either subsist on scraps of information gleaned from a tame journalist or glimpses of the monitors around the place or have to wait until you get home and watch the recording. Yup, some of us are such anoraks that we actually record the damn thing.

Finally, can I thoroughly echo Eric the Unread. People get elected because of the hard work of thousands of volunteers across the country and across the political spectrum. Without people stuffing envelopes, putting up posters in the wee small hours, working door to door, taking abuse on street stalls and dragging voters to the polls, we'd be a lot poorer as a society. Thanks to all of you for making democracy work. Thanks also to the long-suffering polling and counting staff - you aren't paid enough for what you have to do.

And if you didn't vote, don't complain about anything. If you can't be bothered to get out there once in a while to make your opinion known, then you don't have the right to whinge. For all of you who say that 'my vote doesn't matter' - remember that 279 people decided that the LibDems won Solihull and 97 people gave Labour Harlow.

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