General election night: the distasteful sport of politics

I see there has been a frisson of activity over the suggestion that some councils are looking to hold their counts on a Friday rather than the traditional Thursday night / Friday morning when the General Election comes round. The Sunday Times has reported that the BBC believes that up to a quarter of councils are considering making the switch to sociable hours.

The fear is that such a move would ruin general election night, the greatest political television show going. There have been plenty of passionate defences of the show, and the “Save Election Night” campaign has true cross-party support: see Jonathan Isaby of Conservative Home, Labour MP Tom Harris, SNP activist Will Patterson and Liberal Democrat Voice’s Mark Pack.

Without a doubt, it is fun to stay up all night watching power switch hands from one MP to another, and gradually from one government to another. And there is no denying that the television show has brought us some of the most memorable political moments of recent times. Everyone knows what you mean if you mention “the Portillo moment”.

But is it important? Is it even right? The political class treats a general election like a big sporting event. It is our Superbowl, and David Dimbleby is our John Madden. Coverage of politics is heaving with horse racing and other sporting metaphors. Correct me if I’m wrong, but an election is supposed to be about the serious business of government, not an entertaining night in front of the box.

Adam Smith famously wrote, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.” I do think the cross-party support for election night coverage may be to the detriment to what is good for the public.

It is interesting that three of the biggest stories of the past week or so have been about the entertainment side of politics. There is a big debate just now about whether there should be a presidential-style leaders’ debate in the run-up to the election — Sky News is promising to plonk three chairs on a stage and give anyone who doesn’t turn up the “tub of lard” treament. (Of course, all the smaller parties cry, “Why can’t I be on a fourth chair?”) I’m not sure that anyone genuinely thinks such a debate would be a valuable addition to our political discourse, but it will be entertaining so that’s all right then, huh?

Then there is the controversy over the BBC’s decision to invite Nick Griffin onto an edition of Question Time. Chris Dillow summarises Paul Sagar’s point that Question Time is “not a platform for debate but merely a zoo in which soundbites are vomited into an audience who clap like hyperactive seals.”

Now there is this controversy; this fear about the future of election night coverage. Don’t get me wrong. I like a bit of political rough and tumble as much as the next person. And I agree that the votes for a general election should be counted as quickly as possible. There are very valid arguments against moving counts to Fridays, as you will see in the articles I have linked to above.

But the focus on the entertainment value of staying up all night is something that I find a tad distasteful. I am particularly surprised to see this point of view being advocated so strongly by any Liberal Democrats.

That party is quite rightly in favour of reforming the voting system. Most electoral reformers agree that single transferable vote (not to be confused with STV) would be the best (or least-worst) system to adopt. That move would almost certainly put the kibosh on any notion that we will find out the result before breakfast time, but it would still be right.

What is important is that we have a result that is fully reflective of the wishes of the people. In comparison to getting the right result, the speed of finding it out or the entertainment of the televisual spectacle pales into insignificance.

I would rather see a complete end to those sporting analogies I referred to earlier — “first past the post” and “two horse race” being among the most important ones to consign to history. I would happily see the television show “general election night” consigned to history too if need be.

So sacrifice your psephological salivating. Yes, election night can be fun and entertaining. But it would be better for democracy if our democratic institutions operated for the good of the voters, not for the good of politico television viewers.

9 comments

  1. I sympathise with both sides of the argument, but certainly a compelling response.

    The debate brings to mind how many – particularly younger – people seem to treat late-night drinking as an end in itself; the later the better. In my younger days I would have subscribed so such an argument, but this thinking has lost its appeal as I’ve gotten older.

    By the same token, there’s something exciting about staying up all night to get the election results, but there really isn’t much in the way of rationality involved.

  2. Thanks for the comment Stuart.

    I secretly suspect that the excuse to stay up late may have been one of the reasons I became interested in politics. I think it was the same for F1 too!

    But while it might be fun, it’s the integrity of the result that really matters.

  3. Duncan – the idea of holding the count immediately afterwards is to try and maintain the integrity of the ballot, not for any televisual jamboree or for the gratification of politicos.

    Parties are allowed to have polling agents, who can if they so wish be present at the opening of the polling station at 7am. They can then count the voters as they go in throughout the day, and check this against the number of ballot papers issued as the day progresses. At close of poll, they can get the final tally of ballots issued and observe the sealing of the ballot boxes.

    At the initial verification stage of the count, the number of ballots counted (valid or otherwise) for each box should equal the number of papers issued in respect of that box. Any discrepancy can then immediately be drawn to the attention of the returning officer and if necessary, the police.

    Electoral fraud in the UK is a minority sport, largely thanks to having simple, open procedures like this. While it’s extremely unlikely that anyone would tamper with ballot boxes overnight, taking the boxes from polling place to the count and having the ballots verified as quickly as possible further reduces the (admittedly small) risk of foul play.

    I admit to enjoying caffeine-fuelled election nights as much as anyone else. However, no matter what the attractions of getting home for a shower and a good sleep instead might be, the fact is that current practice didn’t evolve either for the gratification of or through a sense of masochistic insomnia amongst the political classes.

    Of course, an STV election count on the scale of a general election would be impractical to begin at 10pm, unless electronic counting were to be used. However, for so long as we have the current system, the argument for leaving things as they are remains, to my mind at least, a strong one.

  4. Thanks for the comment Richard.

    I agree that there are clear advantages to counting the ballots as soon as possible. It just interests me that the campaign to “save election night” is normally accompanied by a cheery picture of Robin Day and the BBC’s comedy graphics. A lot of the debate has been about the great drama of the night, television ratings and so on. That’s not the big issue, which was the point I was getting at.

  5. Richard, well presumably if you think the timing of the count should be at the discretion of officials then this detracts from the point you make about “maintaining the integrity of the ballot”?

    What I’m getting at is that if you don’t think immediate counts should be made compulsory then your point about electoral integrity looks more like something used merely to justify the entertainment value of a late-night count rather than anything of real substance vis-a-vis the possibility of fraud.

    If there is a real possibility of fraud due to a delayed count then surely the timing shouldn’t be left to the personal convenience of officials?

  6. Stuart – I was explaining the historical and practical reason why we have ‘election nights’ at the moment. You needn’t waste your time trying to read any more into it than that.

    In any case, if you read my final paragraph carefully, you should be able to deduce that I have no objection in principal to counts taking place the following day, or even days later as with the European counts.

  7. OK, Richard; my point in essence is that if you don’t think the integrity issue is sufficient to make immediate FPTP counts compulsory then it’s not much of a counter-argument against holding FPTP counts at a more convenient time.

    I think you’re more worried about the “enjoyment of the caffeine-fuelled election nights” than electoral fraud ;0)