Farewell new dawns (26 July 2006)
Daytime election counts might make sense but we will miss the surprises and suspense of election night.
The elections minister, Bridget Prentice, has announced that election night may be cancelled in future. This is not some dastardly scheme to abolish democracy, but a possible consequence of recent reforms to make postal voting more secure. Much as it pains me to concede the point, it makes a lot of sense. Accuracy is better than speed, and it is important that only valid ballot papers are used to calculate the result – the time taken to verify signatures on postal vote returns is a small sacrifice for greater security. Delaying the count until the next day will also mean that counting staff are fresh and better able to do their job without making mistakes. In a close election, this could prevent some recounts, saving time and money.
And yet … there is something very satisfying about the ritual of election night even in a dull election like 2001, and for political excitement a close or surprising election night like 1992 cannot be matched. First come the exit polls, then the straws in the wind that are the early declaring seats, and then the tidal rush of results as the final pattern becomes clear. Election nights are demanding for politicians and broadcasters and the public sometimes sees both at their best and most candid while they react to unfolding events. I fondly recall Cecil Parkinson’s gallows humour in 1997 (on hearing that the results declared were something like 180 Labour to 2 Conservative, he said: “Oh good, now we can have a leadership election”), and Michael Portillo realising that one of the benefits of losing his seat was not having to answer Jeremy Paxman’s questions.
While tired and emotional (in the literal and sometimes in the euphemistic sense) the truth sometimes slips out. There is something of the late night about absorbing electoral defeat or victory – it will look very different in the harsh light of early Friday afternoon. That clear, beautiful dawn of May 2 1997, the light gradually spilling over the Royal Festival Hall as Labour’s leaders took in the scale of the triumph, dancing deliriously (and badly) was an essential part of that election.
For the observer it will also change. As well as watching the unguarded moments of the politicians, the occasional broadcasting slip-up, and the spectacular computer graphics, election night can be a fine party for the interested but not deeply committed. It will just not be the same watching the results in a little pop-up window on the computer at work, as if it were some sort of desultory Test match. The exit polls will get more important, as they will be all the electorate, and the financial markets, will have for over 12 hours.
Daylight election results can be interesting. In 1950 a lot of results were declared during the day on Friday and crowds in Trafalgar Square followed the “battle of the gap” on screens as the Conservatives whittled down Labour’s overnight lead. That said, 84% of the electorate voted in 1950 compared to only 61% in 2005, and getting people interested in elections is more important than making the results service entertaining. I doubt it will make much difference to voters, but to the candidates in an agonising state of suspense, and to election buffs, daytime counts just wouldn’t be the same. I would certainly miss the Night of the Long Anoraks.