Ilford North, May 7th 2015. Labour’s Wes Streeting had the Conservative incumbent Lee Scott’s 5404 majority to overturn and the pollsters had predicted a narrow Conservative hold.
My polling day got off to a shaky start, turned away at the ballot box due to the clerk’s mistake. The columns in the tabular lists they use don’t have proper headings and I was one of the first voters on the day – basically they confused my voter number with my house number and told me I didn’t live where I live, but eventually realised and let me vote. I wasn’t the only person this happened to. I did report it.
At around 10am Ian, a Labour activist, arrived at our place to run what they call a Committee Room. There were several of these dotted around the constituency in people’s homes. They exist to coordinate and refresh the volunteers, and the volunteers exist to go out in groups door to door to encourage the Labour pledges and the don’t-knows to actually get out and vote Labour. If they’ve voted we record how many votes have been cast and (if they’ll tell us) for whom.
We were expecting 50 volunteers but by 10pm when the poll closed we’d had 68. I’d organised the Committee Room – actually a few rooms – into a self-service tea, coffee and snack area (fully vegan but I don’t think anybody noticed), a documents, data entry and volunteer briefing area, phone canvassing area (bluetooth phones from the campaign office), and rest area. And an all-important toilet (not an area but an actual WC).
It was a sunny day, quite warm. The first board was with John who works for a housing association, somebody who works on the Hillsborough Inquiry, and an A Level student called William. I ran the board, which entails going to a district of the constituency and sending people to knock at certain doors with details of the names of the occupants, number of voters, and whether they were Labour or don’t-knows, and then entering the data when they come back with the info. Since I’m not a Labour member (former Green member, pragmatic floating voter for public services, people less fortunate &c) I’m more comfortable running the board than knocking on doors. I especially avoid the don’t-knows. However, William coveted the board and since we ended up going out together several times I did end up on the doors. I did also help a woman with a Sun in her bike basket find her polling station. Cos first and foremost I’m a democrat.
How much difference does this work make? Not everyone does things like this – my mum was outside a polling station in Bedford doing an exit poll which would allow her Lib Dem friends to wait until evening and then offer lifts to any pledges who hadn’t yet voted. Apparently knocking up the vote makes about 1% difference. My experience corroborates this – about 1% of the people I spoke with didn’t know that it was polling day, or didn’t know where to go to cast their vote. It’s now obvious, if it wasn’t before, that Labour as a political party excites little enthusiasm from an electorate susceptible to economic scare stories. In the absence of support for the national party it’s often the nature of political campaigns that each of the different things which comprise the campaign – the canvassing, the leaflets, the social networking, the hustings, the candidate, observing the count and flagging mistakes – make a small bit of difference taken individually, but a difference which adds up. The Ilford North Labour election strategy was organised by Matt Goddin (my other half) and the prep and coordination of polling day was done by Redbridge Councillor John Howard and Richard Angell, Barkingside resident and director of Progress.
My five boards took us ten hours, including getting there and back sometimes on foot. Three were in Aldborough where the biggest concentration of Labour pledges were, and the others were Barkingside High St and off Cranbrook Rd. After 6.00 I ran a board with a lovely bunch of local teachers who’d never done it before but who were really good, and after 9.00, by torchlight, with experienced activists who’d come from their safe Labour constituency of West Ham to help swing Ilford North. They were very uplifting.
At 10.30 Councillor Chowdhury took us to the count in his mum’s jag. You can watch the count below on YouTube, Ilford North on the left and Ilford South, where Labour’s Mike Gapes had another solid win, on the right. Unless you have a spare 9 hours it may help to know that the ballot boxes start arriving at 3:49.00 and at 3.57:20 you can see the supervisors tipping them out onto the tables for the counters to count into bunches of 50 unsorted ballots. After 4:18:50 you can see me arrive near the middle pillar far left to stand in front of one of the counters and try to tally the votes as they open up the ballots. I have paper and pen to record my name, the ballot box number, the total number of votes, and number of votes cast for each candidate. This information is used to project the result. It becomes very important if a close result is expected, as in our case, since the agent may need to justify a recount. Once it’s been ascertained that the number of ballot papers in each box matches the number on the list from the polling stations, the actual count begins. At 6:03:40 I sit down (second row of tables from left, very bottom of the screen) to watch the counter opposite, where I stay for the duration as she sorts the ballot papers into piles for each candidate and then counts the number of papers in each pile into bunches of 50 good (i.e. not spoilt) votes. At this stage the observer’s role is to check that the right votes go onto the right pile. My counter was pretty accurate unlike last year at the Council elections, where after two recounts he was almost delirious with fatigue and clearly found my presence reassuring.
The exit polls were terrible for Labour and despite a positive prediction from our sampling, it wasn’t clear who had won. Some time after 3am I passed Lee Scott in the anteroom in deep conversation with some of the other candidates but not Wes – I didn’t realise he was letting them know he was going to concede. That was some time after 3am. I also happened to be passing by Wes as he heard the news. You can watch the happy announcement at 8:48:30 on the video.
Ilford North, along with the happy ousting of Bradford’s Galloway and Ward – also by Labour candidates – was one of the night’s major stories. Our candidate was liked and respected and his campaign organisers were very good – now legendary, considered beacons of success in a fog of disappointment. Wes and Ilford North Labour Party had bucked the trend across the country and brought about the necessary huge swing to Labour. It was a beam of hope in an otherwise dismal night for supporters of social democracy. The majority was slim – 589 – but the achievement immense – Labour overturned a large Conservative majority and increased its vote share by 9.3%. The actual number of votes for Lee Scott (rather than the share) had remained pretty stable as did the turnout (beware, some sites are reporting turnout as if everyone on the electoral register could vote in general elections). Labour gained disaffected Lib Dem votes, down from 5,924 to 1,130, and there was no BNP or Christian People’s Alliance this time and although there was one independent she was never going to poll more than tens, so there were more votes to go round the other candidates. Did the campaign to get people registered, going round the houses and making sure residents knew that their candidate was interested in them and responsive to them, and finally getting them out on the day to vote Labour, make a difference? Perhaps it was only a few percent or so, which felt at the time like an unglamorously small return for a such a huge amount of effort, but which turned out to be a winning margin on a night where Labour was pushed out of so many other more achievable constituencies.
From 9:01:44 you can get a closer look at those Labour activists, not to mention the loved ones. At 9.02.30 you can see the agent and my other half, Matt Goddin (bouffy blonde with rosette) and the candidate congratulating each other. Getting somebody elected, and keeping them elected, is a long game. The work for the 2020 election starts now. It starts, as our new MP Wes Streeting commented at one of his numerous media engagements today, by returning to the doorsteps of the don’t-knows who didn’t vote Labour and asking them about why. And when the reasons are known Labour will need to counter them with policies which bind this society’s rapidly fragmenting interests back together again.