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.