I can’t speak for what happened nationally, but I think my experiences on election day might be useful in determining what happened.
Fundamentally, I think the Clegg surge *did* happen, but was drowned out by the larger turnout, and a squeeze message. And it was a surge we wouldn’t expect.
Normally, a truism in politics is that the young don’t vote, and if students vote it’s for Labour because of NUS organisation. People are still saying that now. It’s nonsense, with respect to this election, at least. Normally in the UK one would never, EVER queue to vote – and when I voted in my non-student-area polling station, I was in and out in seconds as always. It was slightly busier than normal, but not *exceptionally* so.
But a few hours later, I was tallying at a polling station in a more studenty area, and it was a totally different story. There were queues that at one point reached *a hundred and twenty people*. For those with no previous experience of British elections, a councillor I spoke to later said he’d once seen a queue of three people, at the 1987 election, and he’d remembered it 23 years later because a queue to vote was that unusual. And it was almost all students. And they were *EXCITED* to be voting – coming in gangs, some dressed in costumes (one as a gorilla). And they were voting for US!
After my four-hour stint at that polling station I came away thinking we’d won the election…
In the count, of course, was a different matter.
Looking at constituency-wide results, you can see that in both Manchester Withington and Manchester Gorton, both the Labour and Lib Dem candidates actually increased their votes by almost exactly the same amounts – both had an increase of 3000 in Gorton, and 4000 in Withington. But what you don’t see – and what we could see in the count – was how this split by polling district.
The areas with no students – the ‘normal people’ areas – were overwhelmingly Labour. The split there was roughly 60 Labour 30 Lib Dem 10 Tory (with negligible numbers of people voting Christian, RESPECT, Pirate, Green or Socialist). The split in the *student* areas, on the other hand, was 60 Lib Dem, 20 Labour, 20 Tory – which lines up roughly with my guesstimate from what the students were saying that they were voting 80/20 Lib Dem/Tory.
It’s obvious what happened in the ‘normal people’ wards – these are traditional Labour areas anyway, and the turnout was up through fear of a Tory government – the ONLY stuff that Labour were doing was a ‘vote Lib Dem, get Tories, remember Thatcher? Ooh, scary!’ kind of thing (plus getting Eddie Izzard to go round Withington – presumably a popular-in-the-90s standup is meant to have got people feeling 1997 nostalgia, or something?). So they’re scared of a Tory government and come out and vote Labour. Simple.
The annoying thing is that Dave Page, our council candidate in Fallowfield, said students kept coming up to him all day and telling him they supported us, but voted Tory to get Labour out. They’d picked up on the national messages, and not realised that in this area the contest was between Lib Dem and Labour.
So we have a situation where people were voting Labour to keep the Tories out, and Tory to get rid of Labour, when the Tories weren’t even in the race to start with… and people wonder why some of us want STV…
One thing that NEEDS priority – from everybody cross-party, and whatever happens with voting reform – is a MASSIVE programme of education for young people about how the elections actually work. I heard – literally a dozen times – “You know, I never realised you don’t vote for David Cameron or Nick Clegg, but for your local one” (all of them, incidentally, said it that way, not mentioning Brown at all…)
And while this was not ‘the internet election’, the internet may just have saved the Lib Dems half a dozen seats. More precisely, Facebook may have. Talking with the students in the queues, I wanted to know just *why* so many students were coming out and voting (I was very scrupulous about not trying to talk to them about how they were voting or anything, just *WHY* they were voting). The more politically-engaged ones (relatively) said “Because of the debates. All my friends like Nick Clegg”. The rest said “Oh, I don’t really care about the result, I’m voting Lib Dem because my friends are. I just want to tick the box on Facebook that says I’ve voted”.
So ignorance and lies cost us votes, while apathy and Facebook gained us more. Hooray for democracy! I may go and kill myself now…