I should declare an interest: my other half, David, is a (newly re-elected) local Lib Dem councillor for the London Borough of Haringey. I’m not a member of any party but I’ve been dragged into the election by association, I suppose. I was still at university last time round so I missed the election, but this time I went along to the count to support David and, more generally, to see how it all happened.
To outline our local situation: Haringey sends two MPs to Westminster. The borough is split down the middle by the train line running into King’s Cross. Traditionally the poorer East of the borough is a safe Labour area, electing Labour councillors and offering up David Lammy as MP. Since the advent of New Labour and especially the Iraq War, the West has switched from Labour to Lib Dem, electing Lynne Featherstone as MP and leftie Lib Dems like my boyfriend as councillors. This means that Haringey Council is balanced quite precariously between Lib and Lab. Going into the election, Lab had a small majority, and the Libs were hoping to extend their support in the East and take control of the council. There was the possibility of the Tories having a good showing in some places, although they’re pretty much out of it in Haringey. The local Labour party in Haringey have become increasingly unpopular in the wake of Baby P and various other local issues. Plus they have been in power in Haringey for 40 of the 45 years the borough has existed, so there is a sense that some of the more established Labour councillors have become a little complacent. I don’t mean to be partisan: I think that’s all common knowledge.
So after a lovely day out at Kew Gardens I trotted up to Alexandra Palace with my letter stating that I was a counting agent, although I wasn’t sure what that meant. I arrived a bit before the close of polls at ten pm. Ally Pally countains a variety of spaces; the count was going on the Great Hall, but I hung around in the Palm Court for a while. They sensibly decided to close the palace’s pub early on, but there was a tv showing the BBC’s coverage of the election, and the snack bar heroically stayed open all night. In the middle of the Palm Court they had set up a little podium from which the results would eventually be announced. People were milling around, exhibiting various intensities of anxiety. Gangs of different party members splashed with rosettes roamed the palace, eyeing each other and compulsively checking their phones.
I went through to the Great Hall. It would be difficult to overstate how bloody big the Great Hall is; frankly it’s ridiculous. It’s basically the size of a whole constituency; you could hide a couple of other municipal buildings under the roof, or a street of houses. The count itself was huge – table after table laid out in a complex, maze-like pattern, the tables forming a barrier to separate those counting from everyone else; no one even remotely political was allowed into the inner zone, where the ballot boxes would shortly appear. Hundreds of counters were ready in their seats on one side of the tables, which were marked with different ward names – Highgate, Woodside, Tottenham Green – and yet the entire count only took up about half of the hall.
It was still just before the polls closed – we were beginning to hear about long queues, and to wonder if everyone would get to vote. I was sent to Highgate and sat on the other side of the table to the counters, alongside another Lib Dem councillor and her husband. We were there to watch the counting process for the local election results, to point out any errors, and to produce samples of the results as they came in. Our rough tally would be compared with the official results, so that if the numbers differed wildly a recount could be requested.
The polls closed. We saw on the news the Sunderland ballot boxes being rushed in by strapping teenagers; in Ally Pally, nothing happened. We chatted to the counters, most of whom were council employees, joking as we waited for the ballots to appear. Outside in the Palm Court people gathered around the television; in the Great Hall bits of news filtered in, mainly about the queues at the close of the polls. There was a sense of mass anticipation, then ballot boxes started to appear, borne across the room to other tables. We joked that it was like being in a restaurant and seeing every table but yours served with delicious plates of food. Where was our dinner?
Then suddenly it was our turn; a box appeared and the table was flooded with cream papers. The counters got to work, unfolding and sorting the ballots into batches of twenty-five. We leaned over and tried to see which way each ballot went. This was hard: the papers were upside down, each had three candidates marked, a lot were split between the parties, and they were being unfolded and sorted at great speed; you had a couple of seconds at most to see which way the vote was cast and mark it down on your tally. We weren’t allowed to touch the ballots, obviously, and they kept folding up before I could work out where the crosses were. Added to this, the first box opened started off with a real run of Tory votes, which freaked me out. We were beginning to hear of pro-Tory exit polls, and here seemed to be the proof: cross after cross going next to the upside-down tree logo of the Conservatives. But then my tally evened out a bit as there was a run of Lib votes. I began to be able to tell at a glance which way a ballot was going, unless it was split three ways, in which case I ignored it. The counter I was following was lovely, making it easier for me by smoothing down the ballot as she placed it on the pile, so I had a good second or so to look at it.
In between boxes we added up our tallies – the Libs were soon ahead in Highgate – and dashed off to other wards to see how it was going. David was in Crouch End, his own ward, a way off from where Highgate was set up. I could see him and the other Crouch End counting agents popping up and down as their boxes arrived; the tallies were looking good for him as well. Occasionally we would get a spoiled ballot – one left completely blank, or with too many boxes marked, or some with voters’ vivid comments written across them. At this stage these were bundled in with the rest, in the batches of twenty-five.
Soon the boxes dried up. We sat around chatting again. Most of the counters had the next day off, but one was due to work from 9 until 3 in a nursery. The woman I was watching had been at several other counts, and was fairly blasé about the whole process. We talked endlessly about details: how the split ballots would be accounted for, how long the night would last, whether or not it was faster for the counters with a rubber thimble or without. We didn’t talk politics, apart from to report news of early results, or of the hundreds of people who had been disenfranchised when the polling stations closed. I had a thermos of very sugary black coffee, which vanished pretty quickly. Other counting agents headed off to the snack bar in the Palm Court for coffee and mars bars, the sustenance of choice for the evening; the counters themselves weren’t allowed to leave. One of our ballot boxes had to be counted again, as the numbers didn’t add up to the number they thought was inside; it was eventually reconciled.
Then the ballots disappeared again and the counters were let out for their break. It was quite late by this point, about half twelve or one o’clock, and a surreal atmosphere was spreading through the hall, fuelled by caffeine, sugar and sleep deprivation. Most of the candidates and political hangers on had been up since four or five in the morning, and on their feet the whole day. The counters, too, were coming on from a full day at work; everyone had the look of people in an airport lounge, waiting for a plane, unable to work out whether it was still Thursday.
The counters came back from their break and settled down again, but the ballot papers were still missing. We found out later that there was a problem to do with postal votes being held up by the post office, but they didn’t tell us this at the time; the night just dragged on with nothing happening, and more and more news of national Conservative gains dripping into the hall. We began to realise that things were not going well for the Lib Dems, either nationally, or in our own council elections, where the possibility of taking control of the council was drifting away. For two long hours – from one until three in the morning – nothing happened, and we knew nothing. The conversation on our table, which had started with cheerful, animated discussions of literature and film and gardening, fizzled down to occasional mutterings about whether or not to have another mars bar, or, among the counters, the poor quality of the pasties they had been offered during their break, and whether they would have been better choosing the soup.
Eventually an announcement came over the fuzzy P.A. system, apologising for the delay. We moved on to the second part of the count: dividing the votes into piles based on the way they were cast. This is easy enough when the voter has chosen three members of the same party. Their ballot is placed in their chosen party’s pile, and then counted back into batches of twenty-five. The problem comes with split ballots, where people have voted for more than one party on their paper: two Labour candidates and a Green, for example. Or when they have only chosen one or two candidates. Purely as I happened to be sitting opposite the people who were sorting out the split ballots, I ended up watching that part of the process, while the rest of the table was furiously sorting stacks of Lab, Lib, Con and Green votes into clear, simple piles.
Bear in mind that it was now past three in the morning. We were all tired and extremely highly caffeinated. The split ballots are sorted thus: a chart is produced, similar to a school register, with the names of all candidates down one side. One counter reads the location of that particular ballot’s crosses, and another marks it carefully on the chart. If the voter has only cast one or two of their three possible votes, this is also noted, so that the number of votes on the chart adds up to three for every ballot paper. As the two counters started, the pile of split ballots kept growing, until it turned into two piles of split ballots, and these piles spawned more piles, until more counters had to be roped into dealing with them.
There followed two long and strange hours of watching the splits. The hall was quiet, each table absorbed in their various counts; the frenetic, excited atmosphere of the early evening had long since evaporated. The two counters opposite me both looked hauntingly tired, but they carried on endlessly, one taking a ballot from the ever-increasing pile and reading out the votes cast while the other marked them on the chart. In the entire process, taking in hundreds and hundreds of crosses, I witnessed only four errors, all of which were immediately and transparently corrected. Whenever I looked up the hall seemed submerged, as if I was looking into the bottom of a giant fish tank; people wandered around, cast adrift in time. The split count was rhythmic and completely hypnotic: for hours I watched the counter’s pen move up and down the chart, directed by a soft voice saying ‘Allison… Hare… third no vote’ or ‘3, second and third no vote…. 6, 8 and 12….” It felt like the closest I’ve come to enlightenment. The concentration of the counters was truly heroic, as was the care involved. Next to them was a small pile of ballots put aside for adjudication: spoiled papers, ones with too many marks, etc. Over in other parts of the hall, where the count was very close, people were clustering around the tables, watching every ballot as it shuffled from pile to pile.
This is what they mean when they say every vote counts: every single pencil mark on every ballot is scrutinised to establish the voter’s intentions, and the papers are counted and re-counted obsessively. Spoiled ballots are carefully hoarded; ballots ripped in half as a symbolic gesture are sellotaped back together and found homes in bundles. The papers couldn’t be treated more carefully if they were fragile 50 pound notes. Some people had circled the candidates’ names rather than crossing the appropriate box; some had numbered their three choices in order of preference, as though we already had some sort of proportional representation. As long as their intention could be established, all these votes counted.
By the time the split ballots were counted, the sun was rising. I went outside to wake myself up again – it was so cold out I could see my breath. Watching the split ballots put me into such a meditative state it took a while to shake it off. To be honest, the next two hours are very blurry- from about half five to half seven. I had another coffee and went round the hall, watching the other counts – some poor people were still immersed in the splits. By then it was clear that the Lib Dems weren’t going to take Haringey, although David was back in, with an increased majority. On tables behind the counters the votes were piling up, arranged by party, with numbers sticking out of them – you could see the results at a glance, except in wards where the red and yellow piles were neck and neck.
At around seven or half seven the results began to be announced. The Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone got back in in Hornsey and Wood Green, and Labour’s David Lammy was re-elected in Tottenham. Local election results followed: we stayed for Crouch End, then sloped off home. Recounts were still happening in some wards, and it seemed it would be a while until we heard the final numbers. We got home just before 8am, to the great confusion of the cats. On the bus back I kept saying ‘are you feeling tired? I’m not feeling tired. I was tired at 4 or 5ish but I’m not feeling tired now. Too much coffee I think. Are you tired?’ only to fall asleep within seconds of getting into bed. All morning I dreamed about ballot papers.
So – now we wait. David has been stopped in the street a number of times by people saying they didn’t vote Lib Dem in order to see them in a coalition with Cameron. It’s safe to say he didn’t stand for that reason either. But it’s early days yet. Everyone’s only just reading the introduction of Hung Parliaments for Beginners.
Sorry this is such a long post – it was a long night, but a fascinating one. For more about the local results, if you’re interested, try the Ham&High website, or the Hornsey Journal. You can see pictures of the count at Ally Pally here. Although the result was far from what I would have liked to see, I feel lucky to have been there in the Great Hall – just to witness the sincere and honest care with which the mechanics of our system operated.
That’s enough about the real world. I’m off to read a book.