Hanging our Heads
So, we’ve done it; we’ve made it out the other side of election day. Barely.
What a performance, and not one Britain should be proud of. I’m not talking parties here. I had such a feeling of hope going into this. So many people had been invigorated by the Leaders’ debate and decided that this year was the year they would exercise their democratic right to tell the politicians what they think.
But they weren’t allowed. Soon after 10pm, stories started to trickle through about people being locked out of polling stations and not able to vote. Cries of “should have got there sooner!” started to emerge. It soon became clear that arriving at 6pm and still not being able to vote was a bit more than idleness on the part of the voters. David Dimbleby said it was like “third world politics”. It got worse. Tales came through from around the country of polling station staff unable to cope with the increased turnout.
The official rule on this is that if you are in the polling station, with a ballot paper issued by 10pm then you can vote. Even if you’re inside, if the ballot paper hasn’t be issued you’re out of luck. In some places, people queued for hours, only to be locked out and the police called to move them on. In others (i.e. Lewisham), despite being unable to deal with the queues which built up for hours, they were miraculously able to get everyone in and issued with a ballot paper before 10pm. Hmn, so why the queues? This story came in dribs and drabs. First we were told they had stayed open until 10.30 to ensure everyone could vote. This meant people voted after the exit polls were released, which outraged Dimbleby. Exit polls cannot be released until after the polls shut at 10pm. Then it emerged that this late opening was not just unorthodox, but against the law. Then we’re told that it’s OK, everyone was given a ballot paper in the legally allowed time. I don’t buy it.
But it doesn’t end there. Two constituencies ran out of ballot papers. Now, to the untrained eye this seems incredible. Surely, surely, you prepare for an election by having a final count of how many people are registered to vote in your constituency and print enough ballot papers, plus a few spare, you know, in case the dog eats one. Then you check how many people have been told to go to each polling station and make sure there is one paper to greet each of them, plus a few spare, so if we had 100% turn up to vote, they could. Apparently not.
In Sheffield there is outrage. Lots of people were turned away after hours of queuing. The Returning Officer blamed it on the students who turned up without polling cards. Tsk! Those students eh? Fancy following the information on the polling card which clearly states “This card is for information only. You can vote without it.” There’s more to this story though. Details have come out suggesting that, realising they were struggling to cope with numbers of voters, some of whom did not have their cards (which does make processing slightly longer), one polling station took matters into their own hands. They divided people into two queues. One for local residents and one for students. Whilst many students queued and queued and didn’t get to vote, residents were, in some cases, able to walk right in without queuing. You couldn’t make it up.
C’mere, there’s more ….
In Chester, a minority seat, up to 600 registered voters were turned away because the powers that be were not using an up-to-date polling list. People registered to vote, were added to the polling list, turned up to vote, only to be turned away because their name wasn’t on the version being used, which was produced before people began registering to vote in this election. Really. This seat changed hands last night. A Conservative gain. Now, even if all those 600 people had voted Labour, it still would have been a Con gain, but I don’t think that’s the point.
We, as a country, send observers to oversee elections in the areas of the world where we don’t trust those in power to run a fair election. Where we consider there to be a risk of irregularities. Can we do that again? Ever? I think not. If anything was irregular, yesterday’s election in the UK certainly was. It’s a disgrace and we should hang our heads in shame. Those responsible should be brought to account, using the law which rightly governs how an election is run. Oh, but wait. The law says what should happen, but gives no-one any powers to do anything about it. The Electoral Commission was “extremely concerned” about the stories last night and issued an unprecendented apology. They would be launching investigations. Dimbleby asked several times what would happen to those who screwed up (he didn’t actually say “screwed up”, but I’m sure he wanted to). The lady from the Commission said over and again that the Commission has no power to do anything. They can advise. They can investigate. They can express in the strongest terms possible. But they can’t prosecute or otherwise punish. No-one can.
So, in what was billed as a really exciting election, I watched as first time voters everywhere caught the whiff of excitement and got interested in politics. I watched as the penny dropped as to why it was important that they use their vote. I watched them turn from “can’t be bothered, it’ll do no good” to “give me a ballot paper, I want to be heard!”. And then I watched in dismay as thousands of them were disenfranchised and told to go away, no voting here. I could cry. We will never, ever, regain the trust and enthusiasm of those voters. Ever. Not all who were denied a vote were first timers, and many will be determined to be heard next time (and a damn sight sooner than that I expect). But that election fever that spread through young first time voters has been lost.
And what of the result? Disappointing. For all concerned. I think we always knew we were heading for a hung parliament, and I happen to think that this is no bad thing. A signal to them all that we are not happy. But for all parties – except the Greens! – it was a night of disappointment. None of them did as well as they had hoped. A night of missed opportunities, big name losses, less enthusiastic support than they hoped for. And Ed Balls kept his seat.
Not all bad news though. The BNP did not gain the seats it had hoped for. It did not even gain the second places it was hoping for. Nick Griffin conceded defeat in Barking some two hours before the result was announced, claiming an unfair Labour win. Not more irregularities, surely? What’s that Nick? Labour encouraged people out to vote? Successfully increased the turnout? More people than expected decided to exercise their democratic right to express their opinion? Oh, that’s terrible. That’s right folks. Griffin is claiming an unfair win because Labour successfully encouraged more people to vote, and the higher turnout disadvantaged the BNP. Shame.
So, with one constituency not voting til later in the month due to the death of a candidate, and barring the legal challenges which will no doubt emerge from the shambles, who wants to bet on the final outcome – the one after the bun fight and name calling have finally stopped. When they’ve done their deals and electoral reform has been pinned on the chest of any agreement?
After last night, I wouldn’t dare!