In national and local government offices last Thursday there was a silence that can only be heard on polling day. There was a lull in the normal proceedings as something was strangely missing. The Politicians were all out of the office. Perhaps the silence was the sound of the electorate thinking. As one BBC commentator put it: “The politicians are for once silent while the people speak.” A bit of a simplification of a complex and, some would say, flawed electoral system but essentially correct.
Polling Day, particularly during a General Election, is the one defining moment when the politicians, national and local, have to sit back and wait for the general public to mandate that they can continue to make decisions on their behalf. In contrast, the election campaign is a huge wave of frenetic political posturing, surfed 24/7 by an army of frenzied, multi-channel, camera/mic/phone/laptop at the ready, media experts. At this General Election the Spring Tide became a Tsunami.
For weeks – if not months – before polling day, it is normal for national and local politicians to be out and about knocking on doors, speaking at the hustings and presenting their views on national and local issues to, a hopefully, interested and engaged electorate. Provided, of course that they don’t call during Eastenders or Britain’s Got Talent. The issues, the rhetoric, the personalities, the knock-about and the gaffs have always attracted huge media attention. But this General Election, unlike any before it, actually turned into the ultimate TV sitcom-cum-reality-game show.
The Chancellor’s and Prime Minister’s Debates; the interminable analysis of the smiles and hand gestures; the real-time fluctuations of the IPSOS MORI ‘Worm’; the Motorway Man ‘posse’; the ‘lifestyle Interviews’ of the Leaders by Andrew Marr, Jeremy Paxman and Piers Morgan; and, the Trinny and Susannah type commentaries on the contest between the Leader’s Wives’ dress sense, all made for riveting viewing on every television news channel. The front pages of the newspapers were dominated for weeks either with “I agree with Nick” or “Nick’s party are away with the fairies” stories. On-line, the blogerati were all a-Twitter and websites like Mumsnet and Netmums were thrust into the limelight. Some of the best bits will run and run on BBC i-Player and YouTube. The Prime Minister’s encounter with the redoubtable Mrs Duffy was sad, funny and cringingly embarrassing, all at the same time. The car crashing into the bus shelter during the Labour press conference was life imitating Monty Python.
Polling Day dawned and so it began. This is the real Little Britain at its most bureaucratic and comic best. Before first light an army of Presiding Officers and Polling Clerks armed with reams of official posters, string, sellotape, blu-tack, zip ties, thermos flasks, pot noodles, War and Peace, the Lord of The Rings Trilogy and a black metal box stuffed with books of unused ballot papers – more pot noodles – and an official stamp, turned out and began the conversion of community halls, school rooms, churches and portakabins into quasi-judicial, public offices. By 7 a.m. huge signs sellotaped to a wall or hedge advertised that this is the Polling Station. In accordance with the regulations, signs announcing “IN THIS WAY” were blu-tacked to the walls either side of the door, just in case voters tried to get in through the window. By 7.05, at least one of them would have been directing people down the nearest surface water drain, the other up a nearby tree. Inside, voters were met by solemn notices warning of the penalties of impersonation and other falsehoods. Occasionally, the local bobby will have turned out to check that there was not a queue of people outside wearing false beards and glasses.
Inside, and within the ingenious folding wooden polling booths, there was only one notice to distract voters and a stubby pencil, tied to a piece of string and sharpened so as to write like a piece of nutty slack. Most will have used it to make a mark; generally, but not always, in the vicinity of the ballot paper. Some will have written a pithy comment about the Pope, or the parentage of a particular candidate. Some will have ticked one candidate and crossed the rest (valid). Others will have crossed one candidate and ticked the rest (dodgy). Some will left it blank (daft). Some, like Jim Trott in the Vicar of Dibley will have written “No, No, No, … Yes” (valid). A few signed their name on the paper (invalid). At least one will have managed to get the centre of the cross on the dividing line between two candidates, which, in a recount, will have got the scrutineers whipping out their magnifying glasses. Up and down the country, Deputy Returning Officers and their election staff would have been revising the ‘valid-dodgy’ ballot paper samples in their Election Encyclopaedias. I kid you not.
As for the politicians, all that remained was to make one last valiant attempt at persuading the public to do their duty. Even then, there are usually pitfalls. Last minute opinion polls suggested that, despite the lengthy campaign and the unprecedented amount of media coverage, most people couldn’t tell which party stood for which policies. It seemed harder than ever before to predict how people would vote. As a one time Presiding Officer in a rural Polling Station in the back of beyond, I helped two old ladies up the pre-DDA steps of the caravan-cum-Polling Station. As they were preparing to vote they were greeted by a third who had just arrived. “Betty! Ethel!” said the third, “I didn’t know that you were Conservatives!” “We’re not dear” said Betty, “It’s just that we always come down from the farm with them because they have better cars… .”