So What Happened? View From The Ground

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…

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13 Responses to So What Happened? View From The Ground

  1. Andy Hinton says:

    Seems about right to me. We spent much of polling day very buoyed about the high turnout, but it seemed when we got to the count that this hadn’t quite translated into the sort of result we thought it would. Ho hum.

  2. Alix says:

    I’ve been piecing my own armchair theory together, and this anecdata tends to confirm it.

    Last election it took 96k votes to elect a Lib Dem. This time it was 120k. Our votes were *less* efficient, not more efficient than last time, and that’s a break in the pattern of the last 20 years that requires explanation. Now, I’m not aware that our targetting system has materially changed since the last election. I know there is plenty of grumbling about it, but generally change has been resisted, before and after the departure of Rennard (when it was generally agreed that it would be stupid to change strategy that close to an election). There was *some* last minute realignment of resources when we were going through the poll bounce, but it’s hard to see how that could have caused a five-year targetting strategy to fall apart.

    So, if it’s not a changed targetting system, it can only be one thing: the air war. Our first proper air war election gave us votes in places that were useless, and compensated somewhat for the last minute fear squeeze, but not enough to save seats even though our vote went up. (And it *was* a last minute squeeze; the Murdoch attack brought us from a 30-34 range to a 26-29 range on the day before the election, but those last 4/5 points were all lost in the booth.) Far from disappearing altogether as the media assumed, Cleggmania may have saved us from a truly unpleasant squeeze.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Absolutely. Certainly in the wards I’ve worked in, we didn’t change the targetting at all – just increased deliveries in some marginal wards where we had an influx of volunteers.

      This wasn’t the first internet election so much as – fifty years late – the first TV election…

  3. ejoftheweb says:

    Very interesting piece; of course, the tv debates emphasise the presidential aspect.

    Which is what we need to accept.

    Today, the next government is being chosen by Nick Clegg, whose party came 3rd nationally. That’s not democratic – but he’s an honourable man and dealing with the party who came 1st, pragmatic democracy. The danger is with any form of PR that the small parties are kingmakers – next time it could be the BNP. The answer is easy: one vote for a local MP (preferably by STV), plus a separate vote (preferably by AV) for the Government, so the people, not the parliament, choose the government.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      STV would actually make the BNP less likely – not more – to get seats. In any preferential system, they will come top of the list for the 5% of headbangers who already vote for them, and nowhere for the vast majority…

  4. TAD says:

    The more I learn about Proportional Representation, the more I don’t like it. It seems fair on the surface, but in practice it would mean that your representative could be someone who isn’t sympathetic to your local issues. It would also skew more power toward the cities, with rural interests losing influence.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Not STV, which is the version the Liberal Democrats want. There you still have local representatives – you just have a small number (four is the one usually talked about) in a larger constituency.

      And those larger constituencies would still, in the UK, be only a handful of miles across. I could easily walk from Wythenshawe & Sale East constituency, through Manchester Withington, and into Manchester Gorton, in about two or three hours, and you could drive it in under ten minutes. Having three MPs covering those three constituencies together would be no different from the localism point of view than having three separate MPs for the three separate current constituencies.

      Certainly I don’t think the local issues in Gorton constituency, where I live now, are any different to the local issues in Withington constituency a mile and a half away where I used to live…

      And in the UK, rural areas are massively *over*represented now – and unlike in the US, rural areas are also disproportionately occupied by the very rich. (Cheshire, the county I come from, is a farming county and has I believe the highest proportion of multi-millionaires in the country). I have no problem at all with a small number of rich people losing influence in favour of a large number of poor people…

      • TAD says:

        Perhaps Britain should have a referendum on the issue, after a good healthy debate?

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          That’s what Lib Dems want. Labour want referendum too, but on crappy unproportional system called AV. Tories don’t want to even discuss the issue.

    • Phil Masters says:

      And why are “rural interests” sacred?

      Sure, people who live in the country are entitled to have their interests considered. So are people who live in suburbia. So are people who live in tower blocks. So are left-handed people. So are people who drink cider. What we shouldn’t be doing is warping the electoral system to give special, permanent added weight to any specific interest group. It’s wrong in itself, and it usually ends up as just plain gerrymandering in favour of the Cider-Drinkers Party or whatever.

      (And yeah, the LibDems probably do benefit from the current over-representation of people in some rural-fringe constituencies. C’est la vie. Anyway, I’m just wondering what Cameron’s plan to equalise constituencies by population size and reduce the total number of MPs, within the current framework, will mean for Orkney and Shetland…)

  5. Sue Welsh says:

    Interesting perspective … is this a student thing only do you think? Because the figures on voting by age are distinctly mixed – in male voters 18-24 the proportion voting Lib Dem decreased by 2% and Labour increased 2% – female voters in same age range wildly different with Labour going down a whacking 10% and Lib Dems picking up by the same amount.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      That would make sense if Facebook was a prime motivator – both students (as a group) and women (as a group) VASTLY more likely to use social networking sites than non-student men…

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