Sean Seddon experiences a night of foregone conclusions and unexpected upsets at the Newcastle general election count
It’s a strange atmosphere at an election count where the result is known before the polls have even closed. In a night of country-wide disappointment for the Labour Party, Newcastle remained resolutely red, and was always going to. National voting trends were supplanted by tribal loyalties, nationwide uncertainty replaced by unequivocal consensus. Three hours to kill until the inevitable was made official and a hall full of people who knew exactly that.
The night began with talk of a record-breaking attempt by Northumbria University students to bag the fastest count-time. It was a sponsored effort, raising money to fund a charity drive in Zambia that focuses on HIV/AIDs. Dressed in matching tracksuits the students sprinted through the hall carrying boxes of votes that arrived just minutes after the polls had closed. There was talk that Newcastle might beat Sunderland, that they might win the national race. In the end, they fell short, by two hours, and the first sideshow of the evening fizzled out.
The murmur in the hall was dominated by the national story. Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes, speaking immediately after the release of BBC’s exit poll at 10pm, encouraged us to pay attention to another exit poll, from YouGov, that forecast a smaller gap between Conservatives and Labour. A few minutes later it became clear there was no second poll. It had been a spurious rumour on Twitter, fooling even the man who has contributed so much to Labour’s iron grip over the city, perplexed by the BBC’s forecast of a Conservative majority. Concerned to the point of “horror and dread” at the prospect of another five years of a Cameron-led government, Forbes warned of a struggle ahead. “Can we cope? We’re resilient and we’ve got a lot of backbone. The city is pulling together in really difficult times, but by God it’s going to be a fight”.
One of the oddest breeds to be observed at an election count may be the Geordie Tory. Simon Kitchen, Conservative candidate for Newcastle Central, was elated with the early indications of a national victory. He grew up in a Labour voting family in Newcastle but rejected the rampant anti-Toryism he detected in the nineties. “A lot of the rhetoric about what the Tories did to the city was just not true,” he said. Duncan Crute is another, standing in Newcastle East. It’s almost impossible to speak with these men without thinking: “We both know you haven’t won and it’s ludicrous to pretend otherwise.”
So why do it? Why enter a losing race? Crute said: “The odds are massively stacked against me but that doesn’t bother me.” Crute’s partner told me: “He’s an only child. He’s like, ‘I’ll do what I want, I’ll please myself’ all the time”. It’s difficult to decide whether investing the vast amounts of energy and time in running as a Conservative in Newcastle is admirably passionate, recklessly bloodyminded or plain senseless.
In the smallest, niche fight of the night the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition was going toe-to-toe with the Communist Party, vying for the votes of hard leftists in Newcastle East. I put it to Communist candidate Mollie Stevenson that two parties splitting the far-left vote summed up precisely the problem with the left as a whole. “What I will say is that the Communist Party have run in Newcastle East for a long, long time,” she replied. “We’ve always contested Newcastle East and I would say that TUSC ran against us.” When I put the same question to Mr. Philips, the TUSC candidate, he had the good grace to make the “People’s Front of Judea” joke so I didn’t have to. In the end, the TUSC won 170 votes to the Communist Party’s 122 and the revolution was put on hold for another election cycle.
Conspiracy theories abounded. UKIP claims about BBC bias were shared by the TUSC – left and right united by a feeling of alienation from mainstream media. Journalists flitted in and out of the room, dreaming perhaps of an upset but knowing they could draft their stories early and go home with minimal risk of being caught out.
Most colourful candidate of the evening? Ernie Shorton, leader of Newcastle First. Did he think he was going to win? “Well it really doesn’t matter from my viewpoint,” he admitted. “I know that sounds really awful, but I used to be third in command at Proctor and Gamble. but have decided to devote myself to community work.” Shorton’s hotchpotch party – funded by just a handful of individuals – envisioned a more “independent” Newcastle, but won just 585 votes, 11% of of the total.
After hours of floating around the stiflingly hot hall – fug occasionally punctured by collective groans or howls as results elsewhere filtered through – the returning officer approached the mic. Pretence over. Normal service resumed. In Newcastle upon Tyne Central, North and East, Labour increased its vote. The formalities were only briefly interrupted when Wendy Taylor, Liberal Democrat candidate for Newcastle East, tripped on her way to the stage to hear that her vote had also tumbled. On a night devoid of surprise, her misfortune assumed symbolic value, linked somehow to her party’s free-fall.
One by one, winners and losers made the speeches we all knew they would make and could have drafted the day after the 2010 election. The hundreds of counters and activists, who had played their part, packed up and went home. The defeated candidates, who had gathered to perform the role of opposition, disappeared into the night. And beyond the walls of the huge gymnasium, the Labour Party crumbled.