Vote 2002

Thursday, May 2, 2002 by

David Dimbleby was forlorn. “I always pronounce it wrongly but I try my best,” he spluttered sheepishly. His stumbling over the correct way to pronounce the borough of “Adur” could, however, be forgiven. After all this was the unexpected first big story of the night, and David had already struggled through 90 minutes of local council results searching for something to rouse proceedings. Being stuck in a tiny box room of a studio hadn’t helped; neither had the omnipresent murmuring of Charles Clarke, Labour’s spokesman for the occasion, at his right elbow. Peter Snow wasn’t even nearby to swap jokes with, having been portioned off in a separate room and appearing only in miniature on the monitors behind David’s shoulder. Nonetheless apologising profusely he pressed on, and another election night on the BBC continued on its unique and memorable way.

To find the Beeb devoting so much time on its main channel to an ashamedly conventional round of polling had itself proved surprising; nowadays you almost expect this kind of event to be the sole preserve of News 24. David was clearly thrilled to have BBC1 all to himself from 10.35pm onwards, and after a cheery colourful title sequence concentrating solely on the fact that Labour was “five years old” in office and not mentioning the local elections at all he began in boisterous fashion. “Spring time – and the annual celebration of democracy,” he boomed, and took us swiftly and precisely off on a journey round the main battlegrounds. “Norwich is exciting the Liberal Democrats,” was one particularly evocative promise; less inspiring was the first of many visits to Burnley and Oldham where the BNP were expected to win seats. As ever there was a tokenistic “alternative” outside broadcast in the shape of a nervous Richard Bilton, dressed-down for the occasion, direct from a posh and noisy wine bar in Liverpool’s Albert Dock. The camera lurched across the crowded room as Rich, introducing the big “theme” of the night – experiments with postal and online voting – threatened to “check out those new electronic methods.” And we could email him personally, if we’d been quick enough to catch the address in the three seconds it flashed on screen.

David wasn’t completely alone, though. After updating us on the few results already in – which he read off a piece of paper, rather unhappily – he cued in Peter with a self-effacing admission: “They’re very awkward, these local elections; they don’t actually immediately tell you what’s going on.” In fact it was so complicated that Pete himself seemed a bit thrown by whether to compare tonight’s results with previous verdicts in 1997, ’98 or 2000. It was good to see the usual complement of graphics, including a guide on “How to Judge the Parties” with the legend “Phew!” denoting Labour had lost only 200 seats. This year’s gimmicks, which were really what we’d been waiting for, comprised of a fantastic map of the London boroughs projected onto the floor, designed to show how Iain Duncan-Smith could, if achieving a particular share of the vote, be able to walk from his seat in Chingford to Downing Street without stepping foot outside of any Tory constituencies – “A blue-brick road, if you like!” Pete shouted, joyfully. This was complemented by some ace graphics depicting inflating and deflating coloured balloons designed to show the results of a special BBC opinion poll.

“Let’s just start some chat,” David then rasped, rather brusquely. The usual team were present and correct: Andrew Marr, BBC political editor, and Tony King, veteran of such occasions, both looking dapper and relaxed. Next to them, however, was a newcomer: Nicole Smith, from the Electoral Commission, and whom David turned to first, deeply concerned about “various kinds of graft and impersonation and all the rest. These are just bits of paper dropping into people’s doors! Kids are going round saying, ‘any ballot papers to buy?’” The topic of new forms of voting became a real motif of the Beeb’s coverage, reappearing in various arguments and guises throughout the night, and not always for the most obvious of reasons. Andrew was more effusive, promising, “Something mildly historic tonight – a bonfire of ballot boxes, frankly.”

These events seem to bring out the best in Andrew – recalling last year’s superb BBC General Election effort – and his presence besides Tony King effectively guarantees an entertaining and compelling broadcast, whatever happens. Conversely, softly-spoken Charles Clarke seemed to go out of his way to be positively and knowingly underwhelmed from the outset – a deliberate tactic perhaps, but one rather shown up by his Tory and Liberal colleagues, Michael Howard and Matthew Taylor respectively. They all expressed general concern about turnouts and their own gains and losses; and David found this increasingly irritating as the night developed, maybe anxious for a more obvious and dramatic angle to pitch his commentary around.

One final element of the coverage proved to be a series of pre-recorded reports assessing the record of Labour’s years in office. Four were promised, but only three were shown, and these were dropped into proceedings in a rather undignified and arbitrary manner, with little comment or discussion afterwards to justify their inclusion. The best of the three was a fun piece by Eddie Mair on constitutional reform, showing him talking in a swanky restaurant, looking slightly off camera while reminiscing nostalgically about his favourite moments from the last half-decade. He totally ignored the various meals and drinks self-consciously brought to his table throughout, and at the end a waiter appeared to deliver the great gag, “How was your meal?”

Up in Hartlepool, meanwhile, the big story was the challenge for the position of elected mayor by Stuart Drummond, formerly mascot of the local football team, or “the monkey” as David repeatedly and rather rudely labelled him. Zeinab Badawi was on site to bring “crucial information,” namely how, “the question on everyone’s lips is, is the monkey candidate going to win?” For all the hype her manner contrasted notably with that of Rich back in the wine bar, where the noise got worse during the night and drinkers had apparently been encouraged to stand really close to him making him visibly nervous.

When we did return to Norwich, after a dutiful regional opt-out, Shaun Ley tersely announced, “It’s pretty much all over here.” In fact it was completely over as all the results were in. Some silent scenes of Liberals celebrating reminded Tony King that, “East Anglia used to be Liberal country …”, pausing for comic effect then adding, “before the First World War!” The pace had picked up by now, and David felt more comfortable. “Oh, it’s like a General Election suddenly – all these results pouring in!” he quipped. Then a botched linkup with Jon Pienard in Burnley provided the best line of the night. As the monitors stalled we heard a voice boom out of nowhere: “We’ve got a problem with the camera.” With immaculate timing David cracked, “That’s why ITV Digital failed – because the picture kept freezing!” Everyone fell about, including – it sounded – some of the production team.

But as the results piled up so the overall picture became more confusing. Come 1am and David was scratching his head in pain. Everyone seemed to have won and lost; returning to Pete’s “blue-brick road” we saw how Duncan-Smith had only been able to get halfway towards Number 10 before a cut-out Tony Blair popped up blocking his way. “The story it tells,” responded Tory spokeswoman Theresa May waspishly, “is that I’ll never get Peter Snow to lay my carpet.” We’d reached that point where, the hour now being so late, all those present knew hardly anyone would be watching, and consequently the atmosphere lightened palpably. David’s microphone fell off his tie; we saw a cartoon of Blair giving the middle finger; there was even time for feedback from voters via some patented “video booths”. Then this was interrupted by a sudden cut back to Burnley and news of the BNP’s gains, and the wisecracks dried up.

David, however, wouldn’t give in. “We must find out about this monkey,” he insisted, and his tenacity was rewarded with the brilliant sight of Zeinab beginning an interview with Stuart Drummond, only for Stuart’s mobile to go off. While Zeinab spoke as if he’d already won, Stuart was noticeably careful to not sound any note of triumphalism. But after the build up this story received throughout the night, it was a real disappointment that for some reason we didn’t actually get to see the result declared – David merely announcing that Drummond had won, almost as a throwaway remark. Time was almost up, though there was room for a rather awkward interview between Jon Pienard and a BNP spokesman, of whom Andrew Marr then bluntly concluded, “not the brightest light bulb in the set.” It all made for a rather downbeat conclusion, despite Tony King’s assurance that, “Burnley is not a microcosm of Britain, let alone France.”

So another intriguing and absorbing night spent in the company of the BBC’s finest took its leave with Andrew reassuring whoever was still up that “It’s been rather a good night for democracy – perhaps strangely.” Searching for a suitable way to sum up, he continued: “We have all learned one thing we didn’t know before tonight – which is that envelopes with stamps on them work a great deal better than ballot boxes.”

It was left to David to tidy away the chairs and switch off the lights: “You may think sometimes that local elections are thin pickings – but we do our best.” And they could do no less.


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