What an election

It has been a fascinating, and in many respects depressing, general election.   Labour lost it, the Conservatives didn’t quite win it, and the Liberal Democrats failed to live up to initial expectations.  And who forms the government has yet to be determined. 

It has been a hectic day.  I was up all night and went straight from watching the results on screen to doing media interviews from 8.00 a.m. to 3.00 p.m. with little respite.  I actually remained awake and alert.  In my case, it wouldn’t have mattered much if my concentration had wandered.  With the party leaders – with presumably no sleep for at least twenty-four hours –  it does matter.   In the circumstances, they have all performed well in making statements, but given the need now for intense discussions it may be a cause for concern.

I will doubtless do more posts as events unfold.  I thought I would just comment on the other remarkable feature of the campaign – the problems with electors being unable to vote because they were still queuing when the polls closed (as required  by law) at 10.00 p.m.  I have never known this to happen before and I’m unclear as to why it should happen now.  There was an increase in turnout – about 4% to 6% up on 2005 – and, while I appreciate it was much higher in certain constituencies  it does not seem a plausible reason for, in some cases, hundreds of voters being turned away at the polling stations.  They were understandably angry and there may be some legal challenges.   What were returning officers doing this time that they were not doing in earlier elections, or not doing that they were doing in earlier elections?


About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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18 Responses to What an election

  1. What an election indeed. I went to bed about 8am, I lack your stamina!

    We do produce our ‘balanced’ Parliaments well, don’t you think? It’s bit like a Parliamentary equivalent of the Italian Job. Wish I was a cartoonist…

    Concerning the polling stations, what presents at present appears to fall into three categories: stations running out of ballot papers in some instances; failure to adjust the station register to include alleged late additions in some instances; and stations failing to process electors quickly enough, leading to lengthy queues and significant numbers unable to vote at 10pm in yet other instances.

    In fairness, I think it should be said that the vast majority of contests seemed to go smoothly.

    The inadequate number of ballot papers seems to me the most suspicious. Were adequate numbers printed and properly distributed, and if so, what became of them? I find little potential explanation in the penny-pinching savings of printing too few, especially given the obvious risk of an expensive challenge that now obtains in some instances, with possible re-runs of the entire contest in those places.

    It was explained that increased staffing of stations would not have helped, as each name has to be manually crossed off a single copy of the register (which then becomes the ‘marked register’). This produces the bottlenecks.

    Rumours are about that large numbers of students arrived at stations late and sans their polling cards. I do think students are also disproportionately liable to omission from registers.

    It does seem that the number of stations was inadequate in some places. In the ward I represented in Lincoln for some years, with an electorate of some 5,200, we had six stations, which seemed fine but I suspect well above average.

  2. FinnishCowl says:

    I do agree that this problem seems somewhat odd. As the reports came in, I immediately thought, “Has this never happened before? What’s so special about this time?” Then again, many things were extremely odd about this election.

    There were three trends I noted in these reports (but they hardly seem uniform and there are many where none applied): student voters, bad weather, and people trying to wait until queues got shorter.

    In the first case, it seems that a large number of students were often registered in the exact same polling station. I can only imagine the problems this would cause. Not only would students be less familiar with polling in the area (like the station’s location), I would also expect many of them to vote late rather than early. Furthermore, I would not be surprised if many did not have their registration cards with them. In fact, I know that in some university automatically register all students to vote (without their knowledge ), even if the students actually are postal voting in their home constituency (in fact, I know some who had double registration, and I even know a German student who was given a registration card saying he could vote in parliamentary elections). I also know other students who should have been given a registration card but never got one. The amount of confusion that could have arisen is enormous. I am not blaming students, but simply noting some situations that could or did occur.

    I also heard a lot of people complaining about missing to vote after “waiting for hours out in the rain.” I am wondering if people avoided going to the polls, hoping the weather would improve. This also ties into the third point, which is long queues in general. There were several people claiming that they kept going by their polling stations, seeing the long queues, and then trying again every few hours. The queues never shortened, so they joined them only very late in the evening.

    Again, I do not blame the voters in these situations. I believe there must have been underlying problems that were slowing down voting considerably. These subsequent problems with people wanting to avoid standing for hours (especially in the rain) only exacerbated the problem.

  3. Carl.H says:

    Personal experience

    I voted quite early 9 a.m. Just two others in, gave my card which has my name and address on it and was asked my name and address to verify my identity…Silly I thought. Two people behind the desk, a lady marking off names who was obviously new to it and marked the list wrongly which she stated she had been doing all morning. This was the major holdup, going through the list of names to find me by someone unfamiliar with the system.


    Most people finishing work at 5 or 6 o`clock and then travelling home may not have arrived home until 7-8, by the time they have eaten then walked to the polling station I would imagine there would be queues. Surely this had occured to someone ?

    Open the polling stations until midnight, what is the rush ?

  4. With Cameron’s Conservatives holding out the olive branch of an all-party committee on electoral reform to the Liberal Democrats, I hope Lord Norton will be asked to be a member; with his views on proportional representation and House of Lords reform, at least there would be some comfort that the voice of reasoned argument would be seated at the table.

    As it is, the spectre of a formal coalition government and the horse-trading that will ensue is deeply worrying.

  5. Jonathan says:

    My polling station was very quiet. Only one person in front of me. Have some councils cut corners, e.g. fewer polling stations or less staff at each one?

    As a student, I was once in the situation FinnishCowl describes: registered to vote in two different parts of the country. I travelled that day and so was able to vote twice in the local elections – perfectly legal as long as it’s for two different councils. As far as I can see, it relied on my honesty not to vote twice in the general election – I told them I needed a ballot paper for the local election only.

    I also know an Italian colleague who received a polling card for the general election despite being ineligible. It seems the current system relies a lot on honesty. Now, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but those against electronic voting claim it makes fraud too easy. I think they have a misplaced trust in what the media are calling the “Victorian” system we have. Just because people have to go to the polling station doesn’t make it inherently secure when the officials don’t know who they really, whether they were eligible to vote in the first place, or whether they are registered multiple times in different wards.

  6. FinnishCowl says:

    As sort of a side note, there was one constitutional point I was wondering about yesterday.

    I saw that the delay in Thirsk’s election is a statutory requirement because a party candidate died between the declaration of an election and the polling day. While I do not mean to sound morbid, I was wondering what would have happened if Nigel Farage had died in that plane crash. It makes me think that the Buckingham election would be delayed. However, that would mean the Speaker could not be returned until quite some time after Parliament assembled. I am guessing a new speaker would have to be chosen. At the same time, what would happen to John Bercow? Could he run again? Would he have to do that on a party ticket? It seems like it could be quite a tricky problem in that situation.

    • Jonathan says:

      FinnishCowl: the BBC says only UKIP can have a new candidate in Thirsk, so it seems in the situation you describe, the same would apply, so Bercow still wouldn’t face opposition from all the main parties. The speaker has to be re-elected at the start of each parliament anyway, but presumably has to be chosen from among MPs, unlike ministers. I’ll be interested to see Lord Norton’s answer.

    • Lord Norton says:

      FinnishCowl: You raise a fascinating possibility, one not anticipated by the legislation governing a delayed poll. Had Nigel Farage died, the poll would be delayed. Although the date at which a postponed poll takes place has been brought forward – a consequence of the period of the delayed poll in Staffordshire South in 2005 – it would still be later than the meeting of the new Parliament. The House of Commons meets on 18 May to elect a new Speaker. (The Thirsk and Malton by-election takes place on 25 May. A by-election in Buckingham would be later, assuming Nigel Farage died on the day of the ‘plane crash.) In those circumstances, the House could not elect John Bercow as Speaker. John Bercow could still stand as a candidate in the by-election, but on the basis of his original nomination. Jonathan is correct. All that could change from the original nominations is (a) the nomination of a new candidate in place of the deceased candidate and (b) the withdrawal of an existing candidate. As someone else would need to be elected Speaker, the obvious option for John Bercow would have been to withdraw his nomination since, even if elected, he could not remain in the House as an ex-Speaker. He would instead be offered a peerage. However, if he did withdraw his candidature, this would mean the candidates in the by-election would be an array of independents and (if nominated) a new UKIP candidate. There would be no possibility of what otherwise is a safe Conservative seat returning a Conservative MP. The only other possibility would be for John Bercow to have remained as a candidate and to invite voters to elect him on the promise of him, upon election, resigning and forcing a by-election, in which party nominees could stand.

      One other option would be to postpone the meeting of the new Parliament but I doubt that would be a practical possibility and in any event would be premised on the Speaker being successful in the election.

      • ladytizzy says:

        As a PPC in a delayed poll could Mr Bercow have promised to obey the Tory whip rather than put the electorate through a by-election? Prior to such a promise would an Independent have to seek the agreement of the Tory party?

      • Lord Norton says:

        ladytizzy: Upon becoming Speaker, all party ties are severed never to be renewed. Upon ceasing to be Speaker, a peerage is offered. Even if he continued as an MP, it would have to be free of any party ties.

      • Jonathan says:

        Lord Norton: what would happen to former speakers if one day we have a fully elected House of Lords? Presumably the conventions surrounding the speakership would have to change. One of very many unintended consequences of what I would consider a foolish step.

      • ladytizzy says:

        Thank you, though this leads to another point. MPs can raise questions in the Commons on matters that affect their constituency. How is this managed for the Speaker’s constituency?

      • Croft says:

        ladytizzy: I’m fairly sure that the speaker’s constituents’ interests are dealt with by a neighbouring MP of the same party.

      • Lord Norton says:

        ladytizzy: The Speaker retains his constituency responsibilities. He variously makes the point that, although writing to a minister in his role as a constituency MP, his position as Speaker ensures that his correspondence is taken very seriously indeed.

  7. The Duke of Waltham says:

    It so happened that the day my Internet connection failed me was yesterday; I had to wait until today to get all the information. It’s a very interesting situation, to be sure. I agreed with some pre-election analyses about the Liberal Democrats ending up “squeezed out” by the two big parties in the polls, but I was surprised to see them actually lose seats. Even so, it is their decision that seems to matter now…

  8. David Rostron says:

    Could it be the Liberal Democrats turn out to be the big winners in the end if they negotiate a proportional representation deal?

    • Lord Norton says:

      David Rostron: This rather assumes that Gordon Brown, or some other Labour leader, could deliver on such a deal. Not all Labour MPs are exactly died-in-the-wool supporters of a new electoral system for parliamentary elections.

      • Frank W. Summers III says:

        Lord Norton,

        Along similar lines, I would think that there is a good chance any CP led government can at least stop the wheels turning to kick out the last of the hereditary peerage for the time they are in office. Perhaps, you can or feel you should not opine here?

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