I was lucky enough to get a press pass to the Birmingham General election count (kind of via the Grounds people). I can only say that it was quite simply a fantastic experience, combining my three favourite things:
– People being passionate about politics.
– Journalists being tired and pressured.
– People having different political views from myself suffering embarrassing defeats.
I went along partly to do a report on the Selly Oak constituency results for the Bournville blog I edit. After it took me a while to realise where in the hall the Selly Oak count was happening I got some okay coverage including a nice piece of audio with the rather dejected sounding Tory candidate, Nigel Dawkins. That he sounded dejected a full two hours before his result was declared was no doubt due to him seeing the amount of ballot papers already stacking up in the Labour candidate’s favour (it was a safe enough Labour seat but within Tory reach if they achieved a 9+% swing).
Trying to second guess where the result is heading by watching the ballots being counted was where Edgbaston Conservative candidate Deidre Alden went wrong. After the initial count was finished she was grinning like a Cheshire cat at the prospect of taking the seat from Labour’s Gisela Stewart (although some people who know her better tweeted me to say that Deidre kind of smiles like that if things are going badly as well). As her team of eager, and very well dressed, party workers watched the counting they’d called it for her. So when it emerged that in fact Gisela had won the seat by 1300 votes Deidre was livid, wagging her finger at the election official unfortunate to tell her the bad news.
Journalists aren’t allowed into the counting area so a little gaggle of us could only watch from afar until a counting Agent from one of the parties (he refused to say, but presumably Labour) came over to tell us the result and the lady from Sky triumphantly fed the news back to base. However, it would be another three hours before the result was official as poor old Deidre demanded two recounts of the collated votes. You could see election officials flicking through the piles in front of Conservative party workers to check that a pile marked ‘Labour’ was in fact Labour and not some mislabeled Tory votes. Needless to say that the result came back the same each time. A Labour win. It’s a shame the City Council video only includes the winner’s speech as Deidre was gracious enough in defeat by the end.
So instead of Birmingham getting a result in for Edgbaston by 12.30am as it had hoped, it was closer to 5am. As I loitered throughout the night I had some interesting chats with journalists from the nationals on twitter etiquette. The guy from The Telegraph (the single most poshest chap I’ve ever met in my life) can neither tweet conjecture or call results ahead of time. Given the slow pace of results he was most worried about having anything at all to report from Birmingham before his 4.30am copy deadline. In contrast, the Sky journalist revealed she could tweet whatever the hell she liked; any old rumours from the count welcome at Sky. The chap with the nice trainers – from The Guardian I think – seemed constantly tense, clutching a notepad but rarely writing in it.
Unlike these eager young hacks I had no pressure at all. I had most fun sidling up to party workers and asking them for a view on how their count was going. On that basis I was up for tweeting rumours with no fear of consequence. Overhearing a Labour guy confidently assert Hall Green was going their way I duly tweeted the news an hour before the result confirmed it. It didn’t always work though, I tweeted Deidre to win Edgbaston at one point purely based on the mood of her team and the broadness of her smile.
My night settled down to a pattern of either ear-wigging on or chatting to party workers to get some gossip. In doing so I got a taste of the sheer enthusiasm of those people who give their time for their candidate and party. Labour’s Khalid Mahmood, Liam Byrne and Shabana Mahmood were all supported by smiling groups of young and old Asian men. One of Liam Byrne’s team was more than happy to feed me information when I played the ‘I’m from Alum Rock’ card – turns out he lives down the road from my Mom. Of the minor parties some respect has to go to The Christian Party who were by far the best dressed people there and always gave the most upbeat thank you speeches depsite only ever getting a few hundred votes at most. I only heard one BNP candidate speak, right in front of a crowd of Labour-supporting Asian men. He was booed and laughed at by them and me.
It was a great night overall, one it’s hard to be cynical about. All the council staff work their socks off under immense pressure and I always admire anyone with a passion for politics, mainly because being indifferent and sarcastic is a doddle. I may gloat about Deidre’s defeat (she is a Tory after all) but her team were extremely focused and committed. However, I think she was let down by one of them. After seeing a particular team member check the ballots in the second re-count I asked him what he thought the result was. He confessed he was half-blind and didn’t have a clue what was in front of his face, never mind on the ballot sheet.
Given the overall outcome of the election I’m looking forward to doing it all again in six months time.