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22 May 2014

Political Theatre Matters

We're voting today in the UK for both Euro-MPs and (in many places) for local councillors.

Both groups are widely ignored by the population at large; the former because they're seen as irrelevant, the latter because they're perceived as powerless. The only function of such contests, according to the cynics, is the opportunity to deliver a resounding 'Up yours!' to whoever's in charge at Westminster, where power over people's lives actually resides.

One of the biggest changes in recent years has been in the way in which votes are counted. It's become part of the problem.

When I was a young journo election night was one of the highlights of the year. Local radio ran election specials, and the contest between BBC and commercial stations to get the results out first was as intense as the battle between the political parties on the ground.

An early career triumph was to position myself nonchalantly in the corridor outside the Bradford City Hall press room, ready to grab a copy of each result sheet as the young lass brought them up from the counting floor still warm from the photocopier. I then rushed the numbers to our presenter, who was tethered by lip mic, headphones and croc clips to a phone line - thereby shaving precious seconds off the distribution process, and 'stuffing the Beeb'.

The wood-panelled converted committee room was usually blue with cigarette smoke, and with its lines of grey dial telephones and cream wire baskets, neatly hand-labelled with stencils, could easily be mistaken for a second world war RAF command post. "Ah, see Ginger's bought it in Girlington. Bad show." If we were lucky there was even a crate of brown ale paid for by the ratepayers - at least for early arrivals.

With votes rushed to the count under police escort and tallied within hours of the polls closing there was a real sense of occasion. The IBA might even allow election programmes to overrun mandatory closedown at 1 o'clock if there was a recount. The perception was the election actually mattered.

Contrast that with now.

The biggest change is  that nothing happens until the following morning. Nothing at all. The contenders have slept on the intelligence their damp clipboard-carrying ground troops of democracy have gathered at the polling stations, and the actual results are rarely a surprise.

There's no chance to grab a spontaneous reaction from candidates whilst they're hyper with excitement,  overtired, pissed .. or just pissed off with a remote party leader, whose abject unpopularity has brought a cruel and premature end to a blameless 40 years of local government service.

Instead we get smart suits, immaculate hairdos and perfectly crafted anodyne soundbites emailed out from campaign central. Both winners and wannabes have all watched The West Wing. They know that's how it's supposed to be. They have their 'lines to take'. Vanilla.

Worse, when the count finally gets underway, over-zealous returning officers often seek to corral the media with the public in a gallery well away from contact with candidates, agents, and the party machinery. The actual results are routinely delivered to the press room by projecting the same web page on a screen which anyone interested can call up at home. No declarations, no buzz in the moments before the result.

They do this on spurious grounds of public safety. True, in a few places, a proliferation of fringe candidates from left and right has led to heightened tensions. But police commanders may seek to lock down the room on the pretext of maintaining the integrity of the count, telling nervous presiding officers they can't guarantee order if they don't shut the press out.

That's wrong, and it's dangerous.

The lessons from all this? Treat elections like they don't matter and punters will get the message they don't matter. Kill the story by killing the occasion, removing the spontaneity and preventing access to key players and eventually news organisations will give up reporting the count altogether. So next time it's even less important. It's a vicious circle. Tell us how it really is, and we might start listening.

The message for politicos, loud and clear,  has to be that no-one wants an am dram version of what's playing on the Westminster stage.

Whenever I speak to councillors about their role they stress how they do it out of a sense of duty, because they care for their community or they want to make a difference. I think they mean it. The majority seem like perfectly decent people, whatever colour rosette they wear. Then as soon as I turn a mic on they turn into a Cameron clone, a mini-Miliband, a Cleggette or a Faragista.

Tell us, share with us what you're really made of - and we might just care next time.

Meanwhile for the Euros, no results until Sunday or (probably) mid-morning Monday. Remote? Surely not ....


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