Through the Looking Glass
The General Election May 7th Cambridge Guildhall
7. May 7th - The Day of Voting
We had spent six weeks talking to the candidates in the May 2015 General Election, their campaign teams, the Hustings organisers, the voters and the audiences who had attended the election debates and the media national and local too. As those who cover General Elections will know that from 7 am on the day of voting the media has to abide by what are called 'purdah' rules. Candidates, their agents, the party spokespeople, and even vox pops with the voters are banned until 10 O'clock at night when the polls close. Political correspondents also have to keep off the screens and airwaves as all the coverage goes eerily quiet!
No sooner do the polls close than the pollsters say what their exit polls point to and which party or parties are likely to be in government the next morning. In this election the exit polls had a profound impact on general election reporting revealing that the Conservatives would secure enough votes to form a government by themselves rather than any one party having to go into coalition with the others to govern. Polling itself is now under intense scrutiny as in the lead up to the Election the various polls and polling organisation had said it would be a so called 'hung parliament' with possibly Labour and the SNP co-operating in some way together, a claim Labour denied.
The day of the vote itself is a busy one for the political parties and their campaign teams. They position so called 'Tellers' outside, not in, the polling booths and ask voters to say what their voting number is so that they can match this against the list of their supporters in order to know if they have voted already. If they haven't voted, one of the party 'Knocker Uppers' might visit them and ask if they had recalled it was the day of the General Election.
We visited three polling stations in Cambridge, St Matthew's, Abbey, and Newnham to talk to the voters themselves, the Tellers and the 'Knocker Uppers'. The transition from old to new media was mentioned, as student voters told of how they filled in quizzes and watched videos online to find out information about the parties policies, whereas others had attended hustings events or read the various and numerous party leaflets and posters put through their doors and in neighbouring windows or watched the national leaders debates on TV.
Some thought changing the day of voting from the traditional Thursday to a weekend day would be good, but surprisingly people defended the old fashioned ways of going to a polling booth and putting a cross against your preferred candidate or candidates (there were local elections too) name. Some thought that online voting would be less secure.
Well let's see what happens in five years' time but for sure by 2020 there will be changes in the way we vote. The supermarkets are already saying why not shop and vote at the same time as this could increase voter participation and turn out.
We hope you enjoy this section of our 'Through the Looking Glass' documentary as we travelled out and about on Election Day. It is well worth a listen. Thanks for all those 'ordinary' people and party workers who spoke to us when their time was so precious and they were so engaged in getting their vote out.
We enjoyed talking to you all.
The Day of the Vote - Part One
The voter: On the day of the count we accompanied one voter Alison Litherland, from her home to the polling booth at St Matthew's Church - a walk that lasted 7 and a half minutes.
Alison said: "I am not a member of any political party. I have watched some of the national debates and I have been to some of the Hustings and I have also had lots of leaflets through the door, most of which I have not really read. I do know the policies of all the main parties and I generally vote for the party whose policies I agree with. I have thought about tactical voting, but that way madness lies.
"There are more posters and leaflets than I have seen before, the parties have been very active. There is a lot of concern around here about social justice and a lot of scepticism about the Conservative government's claim to have to reduce the national debt.
"I have never told the Party Tellers who stand outside the polling booth in the Church hall how I am going to vote, I give them my number and that is it. They do it to knock up people who they have canvassed and who have said they will vote for them."
The Tellers St Matthew's: One Teller at St Matthew's Church Hall told us: "We are taking people's polling card numbers; we record them so we don't 'knock them up' later in the day so we know if those people have voted."
Another Teller said: "It is all confidential", while a third Teller commented: "We are given a full official briefing and told what the regulations are even to how big our rosettes are. We are not allowed to go into the polling station or campaign and give leaflets out or talk to people or each other about a politics."
The Party Workers: We visited the Labour campaign hub in Alex Wood Hall in Norfolk Street, twice on the day of the vote. In the morning party workers spoke to us as they were getting polling returns and tallying these against their potential voters. Labour activist Ken, narrated the scene in front of him.
Ken told us: "We have previously been round finding out who will vote Labour and we have used that information to create a list. We call it our 'knock up' list and as people pass the polling station, we collect the polling card number from their card and collate this in order that we don't then go and knock up the voters who have voted. If anyone is left on the list we then go and remind them that it is polling day, normally at mid-day or after traditional work hours around 5pm in the evening.
"We can drive them to the poll if they are disabled or have a disability but most of it is about reminding them it is Election Day. We are representing Petersfield ward today, where the office is based, but there will be similar offices in people's homes in the wards they represent so that we are in striking distance of the voters."
Poster voter activist: In the morning we spoke to one voter Phil, who had driven to the Labour HQ to get some Vote Labour boards that had been taken down in his street Pretoria Road, leaving only Vote LD posters standing.
Phil said: "Someone stole all the vote Labour posters in my street in Pretoria Road, Cambridge, so I have come to the Labour HQ to get some more and replace them. I am a supporter of the Labour party but not a member. They left all the LD ones, I thought people shouldn't steal these things so I came and got some more. I have voted already. It is a bit terrible really, it feels underhand to me."
An elderly voter: Brian Butler, 84, in Abbey Ward, walked with us to his polling booth with his wife.
Brian told us: "Three months before the election you get a card through your door to fill in and if you are on the list you don't fill it in and if you aren't you fill it in and get given a number. A fortnight before Election Day you get given a polling card and told where to vote and get given a number. I am 84 and I have voted in every election since I came out of the Forces. I vote for the person I think will do something for Cambridge, irrespective of what party they are. My wife and I are number 44 and 46!"
The Tellers Abbey Ward: Martin a Liberal Democrat Teller at Abbey Ward Polling Booth told us: "We are ticking our supporters off so we know if they have voted'.
"Mostly people are happy to give us their numbers but if not we don't ask for them. I think it is a really important means of ensuring we get our people out to vote." Martin is also a 'Knocker Upper', he said: "Mostly because people have already said they will support us they are generally happy to see us and they ask us if we are going to win. We would send a car if they wanted a lift but we don't walk them to the polls." He thought the present system of voting served us well: "This is a very secure way of voting rather than online, but if it went online you wouldn't have Tellers. To me it doesn't make any sense to hold an Election on a working day, I would have it over two days and at least one of them a weekend day. With online voting it is hard to secure, this is a low tech process but it works."
Another Abbey Ward Teller of 20 years Martin, a Labour supporter, said: "People use their body language if they don't want to give a number."
"We were told at about 10 am that 20 per cent had voted already which sounds a good turn out." Julia Ball, another Teller, said: "I have been a Teller for about the last ten years for the Labour Party, it is quite useful."
Listen to the interviews:-
or download the MP3 file (file size: 18.9MB)
The Day of the Vote - Part Two
The Student voters: Later we travelled across the City to Newnham where Robinson College University of Cambridge students Richard and Amy were queuing to vote and refused to give their polling number to the Tellers. We asked them to self-narrate the scene as they moved slowly down the queue of 50 or more so that historians of the future could picture it. The student vote is said to have won the seat for Labour from the Liberal Democrat's by just 599 votes.
Richard said: "The queue is surprisingly long, longer than what I expected, about 50 and a lot of them at this time of day, midday are students. I applied to vote and chose to vote here rather than back home as this is a marginal and my vote will make more of a difference. A lot of these people couldn't vote in 2010, the tuition fee hike gets people interested. Because the polls are predicting a tie between Labour and Conservative you feel you need to come out here and do something about it. The election will be to the wire even after the results are announced because we don't know what is going to happen. I looked things up online as well and got emails and letters from the candidates Julian and Daniel, in an attempt to engage us - things are moving onto the internet, the Green Party is good on Facebook. I decided how to vote two weeks ago."
Amy said: "The Scottish Referendum and talk of an EU Referendum makes people more interested in politics now. I have been on the internet and watched some of the parody videos that mock the system. There are quite a lot of quizzes around that are very unreliable that tell you what you are supposed to be voting for. I decided how to vote yesterday, there is a lot of scare mongering and policies not set in stone that I don't trust yet."
One Green Activist Ruth Lambert from Newnham had literally 'plastered' the front of her house with posters: Ruth said: "I think we are on the cusp of a Whoosh!"
"I think we are not looking at a future as we were before, there is going to be a surge in greens, humanity and people centred policies rather than power centred policies. We need to rebuild community and that is the point of this window."
Listen to the interviews:-
or download the MP3 file (file size: 13.6MB)
Dedication: This Eight part documentary is dedicated to my friends Simon Sedgwick-Jell (Green Party), and Ann Stockford (Labour Party). Both were well known political campaigners in Cambridge. They may support different parties but each supported and participated in democracy and befriended me. My respect goes to the candidates of all the political parties and their teams of supporters.