Polling day diary at what may be the start of a long, long month

Ephems and Mrs Ephems have voted today, early and only once each – or rather twice each, once for Sadiq Khan (our Labour MP presumptive, senior Labour front bench shadow Justice Secretary, London election campaign manager, and Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign manager in 2010), and once for the Labour candidate for a vacant seat in our ward of the London borough of Wandsworth Council, following the death of one of the ward’s Conservative party councillors. As usual there was only a bare trickle of people voting. A polite man with a clipboard stood in the entrance to the polling station, asking to see our poll cards as we came in. Assuming that he was some kind of security official, we obediently handed over our poll cards to him to be ticked off on his clipboard, when a sudden thought struck me. I asked him if he was an official or a political party person.
“I’m a political party person,” said the polite man.
“Which party?”, I asked, not releasing my poll card into his waiting hand.
“The Conservative party. Might I see –”
I pulled my poll card away and told him I thought he should be wearing a badge or rosette to identify him as a Conservative party teller and not an official. I also mentioned the matter to the official handing over our ballot papers. He said he would “look into it”. I don’t know what the law says about the matter, and I doubt if either the provider of ballot papers or the polite Conservative party person knew either. There was no sign of the usual policeman outside the polling station, nor of any representative of any other party.

So our duty is done for another five years – or possibly less? — and within a few hours the die will have been cast. We’ll be up until the small hours glued to the television for the early (meaningless) results and then again at dawn for the latest news, but with so many possible arithmetical permutations of results it seems unlikely that we’ll be able to read the runes with any confidence until well into Friday, and perhaps not even then. We may know quite early whether the Tories are going to win more seats than Labour, as widely expected (largely because of the presumed Labour collapse in Scotland): we’ll know that without having to hear it from a Dimbleby on the box because the screams of the Tory press and the Tory leadership claiming (entirely falsely) to have “won the election”, and demanding that Ed Miliband “concede” immediately, will be audible from Land’s End to the Outer Hebrides. No magisterial interpretation or forecast by the television gurus will be complete without the word ‘legitimacy’ to make it sound authentic and meaningful. None of this will tell us anything whatever. It won’t be worth a hill of Dick Whittington’s beans.
It looks as if we now face days or weeks of struggle for the soul of the LibDems — assuming that their parliamentary votes will be needed in addition to those of the Tories, UKIP and the DUP to put them over the 323 line for a majority in favour of a Cameron Queen’s speech and/or in favour of a vote of confidence in the Cameron government. The Liberal Democrats’ leader Nick Clegg’s six red lines (bottom lines or non-negotiable essentials) have Tory help in the drafting all over them, and the Tories’ monstrous threat of £12 billion of further cuts in the welfare budget (details of which they have obstinately refused to reveal) are pretty obviously designed to be bartered away, or halved, as a huge “concession” in the negotiations with Clegg, in exchange for the LibDems acquiescing in the EU in/out referendum, which Cameron is irrevocably stuck with if he wants to remain leader of the Conservative party. Will those in Clegg’s party who want ‘No In/out EU Referendum’ to be a 7th red line prevail over Clegg? It smells strongly of an eventual LibDem split, with the final numbers still unpredictable right up to a Commons vote on — or even after — 27 May. Torture!

Unless of course the anti-Tory group, led by Labour and including the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Green[s] and SDLP, add up to 323 or more without needing any LibDems, in which case “Les jeux sont faits, M. le Premier Ministre, rien ne va plus.” But that may be too good to be true. When shall we know? Possibly by late on Friday (tomorrow) if the numbers are clear and decisive by then, in which case it’s conceivable that either Cameron or Miliband may concede forthwith. But with the obscure and controversial Cabinet Manual nagging at Cameron not to resign, even if he clearly hasn’t got the numbers, until there’s a new government ready to take over, Cameron will be constitutionally entitled, even required, to stay on as prime minister of a caretaker government, whatever the arithmetic, and submit a Cameron programme for government (Queen’s Speech) to parliament on or possibly even after 27 May. It’s going to be a long month, filled with constitutional ignorance, irresponsible language and filthy tempers.

One modest recommendation: we’re now well into the age of fractured political affiliations and a multitude of parties with enough support to feel entitled to a seat at the table. For the foreseeable future no one party is likely to win an overall majority of the seats in the House of Commons, the necessary condition for being able to govern alone. If we ever change to a proportional electoral system (PR) in response to the current storm of criticism of First Past the Post, that prospect will become a certainty at every election: no political party in the UK has won as much as 51 per cent of the national vote since the 1930s. So every government will have to learn to negotiate and bargain for the support of at least one and probably (as now) more than one other party in order to secure parliamentary approval for its measures. And we, the electorate, will have to learn to live with that reality, preferably without denouncing this or that alliance of parties as ‘illegitimate’, or warning that this party can’t govern with a democratic mandate because it has to be ‘propped up’ by that party, or that the senior governing party is going to be blackmailed and dominated by its junior partner at the expense of stable, moderate governance. We shall all, in short, need to grow up.


14 Responses

  1. Paul Sharp says:


    You will be relieved (or not) to learn that events in Britain are being followed closely by the citizens of Duluth and that, on the whole, we think the Duke and Duchess got the blend of traditional and modern names just right!


  2. Oliver Miles says:

    I am interested in corruption and therefore in observers. Having observed elections in other countries my faith in our own system has been shaken. I note that after every election there are reports of police and court activity concerned with electoral fraud, not necessarily related to postal votes. It will be interesting to see whether that pattern continues.

    A few years back our law was changed to permit observers, who were previously entirely banned from polling stations, counting centres etc. Since then I have always asked at my local polling station, and today for the first time was told by one of the officials that he actually had some advice about how to recognise properly authorised observers (colour of badges etc).

    My own observations were under OSCE arrangements, and I see that following a UK invitation

    “the OSCE/ODIHR has deployed an Election Expert Team (EET) to observe the 7 May general election.

    The EET began its work on 22 April and includes three international experts, drawn from three OSCE participating States.

    The team will assess the election process in terms of its compliance with OSCE commitments and other international obligations and standards for democratic elections, as well as national legislation. Observers will, in particular, look into aspects related to the implementation of legislation and application of election procedures, voter registration and campaign finance.

    In line with ODIHR’s methodology for assessment missions, the team will not carry out systematic or comprehensive observation of the voting, counting and tabulation on election day. Team members will, however, visit a small number of polling stations across the country to follow election day procedures.

    The EET will remain in the United Kingdom until 10 May. A final report will be issued approximately two months after the completion of the election process”

    I assume that there are other international and perhaps national observer teams as well. I should be very interested to hear if anyone bumps into them.

  3. Ronnie says:

    We had agreed, spouse and I, to vote tactically, to hold our noses and support the SDLP’s good Catholic doctor in order to keep out Sinn Fein’s attractive and (we had heard) confident ex-Lord Mayor.  For the first time in decades we found canvassers at the entrance to the polling station, a lady and a gentleman, impeccable in every way representing Sinn Fein.  We talked as one does at 1o am on a sunny morning,and we were rather surprised and impressed.  (“Almost,” as Festus – I think -said after listening to Paul, “though persuadest me……..”)   I didn’t see a policeman and only officials appeared to be present inside, no candidates’ personation agents.  I think we still postpone the count until tomorow. A long night and day awaits the light and darker green nationalists, my spouse and me.

  4. Tom Berney says:

    It all turned out to be quite clear cut unfortunately.   You will understand that many of us are not pleased that once again Scotland soundly rejected the Tories but, yet again, our Southern neighbours have given us a Tory government.  You can get very fed up with that.

    Brian writes: Thank you, Tom. I have always been puzzled by this particular common Scottish complaint (although I very much sympathise with many others). No single constituency or group of constituencies, even a group representing around 8.3% of the total UK population, can expect to determine in isolation the overall result of a UK-wide election. I live in a Labour constituency in London; like the majority of Londoners I always vote Labour; yet for much of the time we Londoners find ourselves saddled with a Conservative UK government. At least Scots can console themselves that they have their own Scottish government over whose political orientation they collectively have total control, and which is responsible for many aspects of their lives. The government of London (whose politics are basically determined by the degree of charisma of the candidates for Mayor of London, currently the inimitable Boris) has strictly limited autonomy compared with Scotland, so we Londoners have even more grounds for feeling frustrated. But a minority can’t logically expect its political choices to override those of the majority of which it’s a part. In the case of Scotland, but not London, it may tend to reinforce a desire for independence, of course.

  5. Aidan Boustred says:

    Tom, surely the SNP supporters can take some comfort in the fact that they got 56 MPs from only 1,454,436. The 2,415,888 Lib Dem voters got only 8 MPs (a tenth of the MPs per vote) and UKIP did even worse, taking 3, 881,129 votes to produce one solitary backbencher, and the 1,154,562 Greens didn’t do much better. In the existing system voice of geographically specific parties is already much louder than other parties with a similar number of supporters.

  6. Tom Berney says:

    I don’t take much comfort from getting another Tory government no matter how it got there.

    But I don’t find your figures very meaningful.  The SNP 1.4m vote came from a population of 5m.  The LibDems 2.4m came from 60m.

    So the former look like winners and the latter losers to me. The notion that UKIP being rejected in every election they stood in gives them a legitimacy doesn’t appeal to me. And isn’t every individual constituency geographically specific? We are electing individuals not parties.


  7. Barry says:

    Indeed we are and that is where the problem lies. To put it at its most basic, Britain doesn’t have general elections. We have 650 by-elections to the House of Commons on one day. How can you possibly have a general election when the results of it don’t take any account of the nationwide share of the vote the parties achieve because the votes in each single-member constituency are not linked?

  8. Tom Berney says:

    The message to which I responded has mysteriously disappeared.  My point was that a numerical comparison of votes between LibDems standing in 650 seats and SNP standing in only 59 didn’t seem very meaningful.

    The LibDems lost their deposit in 340 different places.  So I suppose credit to them for effort, but as a measure of success or qualification for election?

    I understand the point about proportions, but having all of UK simply voting for parties would remove individual  accountability. For example,  our former Labour MP is a horrible guy. I wouldn’t vote for him no matter what party he represented. Locally we know him so we voted him out. Obviously party is the major factor in voting but I like to keep knowledge of the candidate as part of the system.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I don’t know how the earlier message came to disappear. I have tracked it down and restored it, I hope.

    On the substance, I think we should remember that one of the functions of the house of commons is to act as an electoral college to which communities, not individuals, send their delegates who in turn choose who is to form a government. The reason why electorates in Scotland are so much smaller than those in, for example, most of England is that the population is so much more scattered over such large distances. If Scottish constituences were to have populations even roughly as big as (e.g.) London constituencies, they would have to be impossibly big geographically, so that it would be almost impossible for a single MP to look after each one, and they could not be vaguely homogeneous communities. The Conservative plan for up-dating constituency boundaries (which the LibDems in the last parliament blocked in retaliation for the Tories’ failure to support their plan for reforming the house of lords, but which the new majority Conservative government will presumably now push through, as it benefits them electorally) will base constituency boundaries almost entirely on population size, not on coherent communities. I think this will be a pity. For example the Isle of Wight, which has always been a single homogeneous constituency with the largest population in the UK, will have to be divided into two constituencies of which either one or both will have to include a smallish arbitrary area of the mainland to bring their populations up or down to the overall national average. Many constituencies will thus lose their identities, and the drawing of their new boundaries will be wide open to gerrymandering.

  9. Tom Berney says:

     “No single constituency or group of constituencies, even a group representing around 8.3% of the total UK population, can expect to determine in isolation the overall result of a UK-wide election”

    Yes I know London has more MPs than Scotland. That the population justifies that. And that you don’t always get the government you want.  However, most Scots don’t think of themselves as 8.3% of the UK.  I accept you will think it is eccentric, but we see ourselves as a nation and take an interest in how our nation votes and what it gets from that vote. Most English people (not just Londoners) even BBC reporters  use British and English interchangeably.  So you see things differently.  We had English comments during the campaign about the temerity of the SNP intruding on “our parliament”. Which actually is not that inaccurate really. eg Paddy Ashdown described it as “a Scottish raiding party” So if English grandees like him, Cameron and Milliband write us off as aliens it is not too surprising that we react and often see situations collectively’

    “Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler, if you think old England’s …”

  10. Brian says:

    Brian writes in reply to Tom Berney’s new comment:: Thank you again. But no, I don’t think it’s in the least eccentric to recognise that Scots see themselves as a nation, with all that follows from that. After all, for many years I have been arguing that a federation of all four UK nations, each of the four running its own internal affairs without interference from the federal centre (or from England despite its size and wealth) is the only durable, democratic solution to the problems of Scottish and English nationalisms and to the anomalies encapsulated in the West Lothian Question, as well as being the logical culmination of devolution. Unfortunately the clear requirement of a federated UK that England must have its own parliament and government if it’s to enjoy home rule on a par with the other three nations, has so far proved a step too far for our timid, ultra-small ‘c’-conservative political leaders of all three main UK parties, who can’t bear the idea of the federal parliament at Westminster losing its powers to regulate the minutiae of life in England. All I have been arguing is that the right of Scotland to decide by its people’s votes who should make the fundamental political and social decisions affecting the Scottish people’s own daily lives is, or should be, satisfied at least in part by the extensive powers in such matters of the Scottish parliament and government at Holyrood — a right of extensive internal self-government still denied to England. It remains the case however that since the Scottish people represent only around 8% of the whole UK population, they can’t reasonably complain if their votes in UK elections often don’t correspond to the overall UK election results, any more than London’s or Wales’s or indeed England’s votes do: but these votes relate mainly nowadays to all-UK affairs such as foreign affairs and defence, not to Scottish education or penal or local government matters. In that respect, England has a legitimate grievance, but on the whole Scotland has not, especially once the pledge of further devolution of powers to Scotland made by the three main UK party leaders just before the independence referendum has been honoured, as it must now be honoured. Is Scotland a nation? Hell, yes it’s a nation. So is England. Time England asserted its absolute right to its own self-governing organs so that it can enjoy full internal self-government like its three sister nations in the UK, in a federal system that protects the three smaller nations against interference, bullying or domination by big sister England.

    Most non-English-speaking foreigners habitually refer to the British ambassador as the English ambassador and to the British embassy as the English embassy. When a large Scottish theatre group (including the late Gordon Jackson) brought an old Scottish play performed in the original Lallans to Warsaw, almost all its (highly sophisticated and articulate) members were amazed that my wife and I (as the British ambassador and ambassadress) gave a massive and highly successful reception for them in the British ambassador’s Residence to meet leading political and theatrical Poles: it had not occurred to them that a British ambassador to Poland would represent Scotland as well as England (not to mention Wales and Northern Ireland). The regrettable tendency to speak and write as if “England”, “Britain” and “UK” were all interchangeable terms is not entirely confined to the English, sadly. Lots of English people assume that they already have their own English parliament and government at Westminster and can’t understand why they should want new ones.

    Finally, “Who do you think you’re kidding, Mr Hitler, if you think old United Kingdom’s done?” doesn’t somehow have the same resonance, does it? And “old Britain” won’t do, either, as any army veteran from Belfast will be happy to explain to you, should you need it.

  11. Timothy Weakley says:

    I was rather touched to get an e-mail from Ed Miliband announcing his resignation and thanking me for my support.  I realise, of course, that E.M. has never heard of me and that it was all done by computer at the instigation of some party PRO; nevertheless I thought it was a nice gesture.

  12. David Campbell says:

    Well, Brian, your pathological fear (my word) of a LibDem kingmaker has not materialised, but you couldn’t have been more comprehensively wrong than I was. Don’t know how I dare show my face here again, but here are a few impressions from Scotland., not all of them in line with Tom Berney’s.


    1.   The Lib Dems fought a cowardly and self-contradictory campaign, epitomised by Danny Alexander’s attempt to attract tactical votes while spreading scare stories about his coalition partners. No mention of human rights, the rule of law, social justice, fair votes, the need to control the security state. A sad end to a great tradition in Scottish politics.


    2.   Sturgeon emerged from Salmond’s shadow, with attractive policies of her own, notably toward women. She also did as well on the street as in set piece debate. She never left her comfort zone of blaming the English, and now Salmond’s shadow looms again. He’s going to be a menace in Westminster and a nightmare to Sturgeon. Enjoy.


    3.   Murphy deserves great credit for braving the SNP rent-a-mob. He was never more New Labour than when most on message, churning out sound bites and calling them a “plan.” In set-piece debates he came across as a bully, a cad and a liar. He’s good value. I hope he stays.


    4.   The improbable Ruth Davidson did well to stabilise the Conservative vote, standing by the Coalition’s record in a positive and humorous campaign. The Scottish electorate have taken her to their hearts.


    5.   The Greens, too, were ably led, with fracking and the problems of the Scottish oil industry inviting them to debate environmental issues. They blew it. They’re populist sloganeers, not environmentalists.


    6.   UKIP were apparently nowhere but will be effective contenders for the protest vote, once disillusion with the SNP sets in.


    In my constituency (East Lothian) we unseated a hardworking, honest woman who had served us well for an SNP “economist” who got elected on a minority vote. You should have seen the morning-after faces. Overall, the outcome is massively misleading . Beneath that all-yellow map, Scotland is as divided as ever. The balance in Holyrood and local government, where we have PR, tells a different story.

  13. Oliver Miles says:

    A friend suggests that the three solitary survivors, Conservative, Labour and LibDem, should get together and form a Scottish Unionist party. Like most English ideas for Scotland, unlikely to win a coconut. But to be serious, where is a Scottish Unionist to turn?

  14. David Campbell says:


    For Scottish elections, the voter sticks with his or her favoured party. Because we have PR the vote is unlikely to be wasted. For Westminster, he or she does the same, and trusts in Providence. One has become used to the perverse outcomes thrown up by FPTP, but this year’s takes the biscuit.

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