I’m telling you…the joy of telling
BY PAUL RICHARDS
There’s an interesting debate to be had about the differential impact of traditional campaign methodology, the ‘ground war’, on the actual results of local elections. Often the best-laid plans are stymied by the pesky voters: target seats are lost and ‘unwinnables’ send unlikely, or even unwilling, victors to the town hall. There doesn’t seem to be much correlation between local membership levels and electoral success. In the 2019 general election Labour swamped seats with hundreds of activists, seats which they lost, and the Tories won ‘red wall’ seats where their local constituency associations could meet in a Bolsover phone box.
Much of the polling day operation is ritual. Desperately early starts, Get Out The Vote (GOTV), committee rooms in people’s homes, endless tea and biscuits, and an all-nighter at the count. Labour’s GOTV is modelled on the Reading system, developed in 1945 by Ian Mikardo MP in the Berkshire town of Slough. No, Reading, obviously. It works like this: Labour canvassers are out for months before the election knocking on doors or on the phones, and asking people with which party they identity. From this data-gathering, we collate a list of the ‘promise’, and on polling day we remind them they said they would vote for us. Sometimes we remind them half a dozen times until they relent.
This is the good bit — on each polling station sits a ‘teller’, gleaning the polling number of each voter as they vote. They are provided with a chair, and perhaps a little shelter, but must not get too close to the actual voting. Sheets of these numbers (or addresses if they’ve forgotten their card) are collected and fed into the committee rooms, where those who have voted are crossed of the list.
Telling is one of my favourite things. Being somewhat inactive, I like being useful on polling day by sitting for many hours taking numbers. It’s a bit like political trainspotting. On Thursday, I did 7am to 12, and 5pm until 8.30pm on a polling station in the new Trinity ward in Wandsworth, at the epicentre of Thursday’s election drama.
There is an interesting sub-culture amongst tellers. Each party contesting the election puts someone on the polling station, and they collaborate to share numbers. After all, it is everyone’s interest to cross people off the list. The normal combat is suspended, and people from different parties chat about this and that.
During my eight hours at the polling station I met some pleasant Lib Dems and Tories and talked about holidays, gardening, and hifi systems. I swapped war stories with a guy who had worked in Conservative Central Office under Thatcher. The time flew by in the spring sun, with the smell of marijuana floating on the air as it seems to be everywhere these days, and crucially my efforts meant Labour’s campaign teams, with their endless enthusiasm and young legs, could focus on an ever-diminishing list of the Labour promise.
The voters react to tellers in a variety of ways. Some understand the system and share their polling number with whomever asks. Some even have it memorised. Others give it only to the person with the rosette of their electoral choice, even though the others are standing right there. Some are openly hostile, muttering about a secret ballot. They look perplexed when we say we have no interest whatsoever in how they voted or intend to vote.
Some feel they have gained something by refusing to give their number or address, not realising they will probably be inundated by knocks on the door or calls for the next five hours if they are on someone’s list of the promise. What they think we are doing, I have no idea. One chap on Thursday fulminated that we had no right to ask him for a polling number until he had voted. He had the good grace to apologise on the way out, having checked with the presiding officer.
The authorities in Wandsworth had helpfully placed a poster on the polling station door explaining the role of the teller. This the first time in 30 years I have seen such a useful initiative. It helps explain what we’re doing and defuse misunderstandings. There is a lamentable lack of political education in the schools about the mechanics of elections. The parties’ operations are a mystery to majority. It should be part of the national curriculum.
One of my first adventures was the Liverpool Walton by-election in 1991 when Labour was fighting off a challenge from Militant Tendency. The fine folk of Walton had seldom seen tellers before, where hitherto they simply weighed the Labour vote, and complaints were made to the police about intimidating clipboard-waving activists on polling stations.
There is something magnificent and majestic about what happens in those church halls and community centres. For a moment, the people are in charge, choosing their representatives. No gunfire, no blood in the gutters, just a ballot paper and a stubby pencil. For me, the sight of new citizens voting, or 18 year olds going in with mum or dad for the first time, is one of the best sights in the world. The ghosts of Chartists and Suffragettes smile down in benediction on our enterprise.
Paul Richards is a writer.