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Election Night 2003 at Salt Ayre Leisure CentreWinning ticket?

John Freeman reports on Election Night 2003 in Lancaster...

Photographs by Satori

One of the things I've discovered this week is that in an election, everyone wins. Yes, I'm sure you're confused, because people obviously lose, too. Council leaders lose their seats. In this election, Independents lose seats to party politicians -- something they wanted to avoid, if you had a chance to read any of their election leaflets. Labour lost a precious seat to another party -- this time round, it was the Greens. But when you end the night -- or early morning -- with a council that still has no overall majority, and national council elections that can be interpreted in every way under the sun, you can be sure that very few politicians will admit they really, truly, lost.

If there was any certainty at Election Night 2003, held in Salt Ayre Leisure Centre, it was that the low turnout was bad news for everyone. Turnout was a disappointing 32.65 per cent of eligible voters, down nearly 8 per cent on four years ago. Coun Charles Grattan offered on reason for that, feeling recent local media coverage of old issues, despite their importance such as Blobbygate, had simply bored people out of voting. "People are fed up with certain issues, instead of looking to the future."

MBIs together: from left: Evelyn Archer, C Stebbing, a supporter, and John Barnes MBI candidate for Harbour ward

Turnout in the newly-created University Ward was a pathetic 18.47 per cent. Stuart Langhorn, one of the winning Liberal Democrats -- the party that had to wait the longest on the night before they won any seats at all, it seemed -- revealed that getting students out to vote was very hard. A new Green councillor admitted the same as we all staggered out into the night, way after 3.00pm. Which may seem surprising when you consider how many young people were keen to take to the streets to protest about war on Iraq in recent months. Maybe they think that kind of action is a better way forward than the ballot box?

The level of disillusionment -- not apathy, but just genuine frustration with our political system -- makes you realise just how distanced the word politics has come from the people, which is funny really, because politics is Greek for people. So really, we're all political animals.

But it's no surprise to me that many people don't vote, disillusioned by years of voting in one person only to get something completely different when they start work as a councillor. Or don't vote because the candidates failed to show any interest in getting that vote. In Skerton, only the Labour Party and the Independent candidate circulated election leaflets, even though the Greens and the Conservatives also fielded candidates. Charles Grattan told me one little old lady -- a true blue Tory voter -- had dropped into his barber shop on Election Day to tell him she'd voted Labour. Seems she was furious that the Conservatives had not only not even bothered to canvas -- she was even more annoyed they'd chosen someone from Silverdale to represent Skerton West. So much for the Conservatives rallying cry of "local issues, local action", then...

Chris Cotton (chair Morecambe and Lancaster Liberal Democrats), Ian W Clift (Torrisholme candidate) Donald Holmes (I'm nothing),
Cyril Pollitt. Terry Taylor (secretary Lib Dems and agent). All looking very spiffy in yellow rosebuds, yellow ties - a close group.

In fact, the Conservatives and the Greens seemed to field candidates everywhere but it seems reaching every home in the district is impossible and it became obvious that every party, with limited finances and people resource, was forced to target the seats it knew it had a chance of winning. Jon Barry for the Greens apologetically admitted they'd really only targeted 12 of the seats (and won 7) --to his regret, because he really wanted to try for Skerton, too. "It's a question of resources," he told me. It was better to do a good job in some places than a bad job everywhere."

Ward border changes this time have also confused the voters. "People don't understanjd what's going on," complains one Conservative. "It's confused people." Especially people who don't look at their polling cards and discover the polling station they've used for years is no longer theirs.

Labour man Stan Henig -- having problems with the new media?
Labour man and former MP Stan Henig -- having problems with the new media?

There were parts of Lancaster and Morecambe where the political machines were very much in action. For perhaps the first time in 30 years, Labour had a fight on its hands in Bulk and its big guns -- Hilton Dawson MP included -- were wheeling voters down to the polling stations right up until the ballot closed at 9.00pm.

And so the hard work of the night begins, with what must have been over a hundred council workers and relatives drafted in to do the work for the count.

By about 10.30 on the night all of the ballot boxes have arrived and the turnout is already being assessed and guesses being made about the result. As council workers began to verify the votes, checking for spoilt ballots before they went to the count, the press are already deciding the top stories of the night: the Greens and the fate of Council leader Tricia Heath. Between us, the Virtual-Lancaster team consider ways to put a spin on after declaration interviews, when enthused new councillors -- especially enthused new councillors, the ones that are about to embark on their role for the first time -- come off the podium.

"Are you pleased with the result?"


"And have you ever had oral sex, Councillor?"

Labour's Darren Clifford, candidate for Heysham South looks very spruce at 12.30

We decide only the Greens possibly won't take offence at such a line of questioning and instead settle on assessing candidates for their fashion sense. The Sun would be proud of us. On this front the Conservatives and Independents are clear winners. The Liberals seem rather school staff room to us and we won't even start on the Greens, while Labour -- sorry, we have to exclude Stan Henig from this -- are all very sharp. Ruth Henig looks like she's about to go hunting and Jean Yates looks ready to immediately open a new school or Western Bypass at the drop of a hat.

Just before 10.40 the first result of the night. Independent Paul Woodruff walks the Halton Ward battle, with 606 votes. We're already interpreting, of course, it's what journalists do. Could this spell another election victory for the Independents? "I don't know which way it's going to go," says Tricia Heath, "I'll just be glad when it's all over."

At just after 11 o'clock, there are flurries of excitement on the Poulton table. Morecambe MP Geraldine Smith sails by with smiles of encouragement for her team, who have worked hard to campaign for seats in the Ward, one of the bastions of the Morecambe Bay Independents. Will Tricia Heath lose her seat here? Excitement mounts.

11.15. One of the Conservative campaign runners reveals concern about the result. "It will be a disaster if we lose people like Abbott Bryning and Ian Barker from the council," admits Terry Evans, well aware I'm press and he's talking about Labour councillors. "But the true blues are in at Slyne." He's not wrong. The Conservatives walk the ward.

11.53 "This is the most boring count I've ever been to," bemoans a dapper Nikki Penny, Skerton's county councillor. "It's like watching paint dry." We do wonder why things seem to be taking so long.

Tricia Heath looks on as the MBIs take a pasting
Tricia Heath looks on as the MBIs take a pasting
Geraldine Smith MP and protege Rebekah Gerrard
Geraldine Smith MP and protege Rebekah Gerrard

12.00 The Poulton result is declared and MBI Leader Tricia Heath is gone. 23-year-old new councillor Rebekah Gerrrard is congratulated by every party for removing what one labour activist calls "the head of the beast."

"I'm just overwhlemed," enthuses Rebekah, who works for Geraldine Smith in her office. Smith is of couser on hand with relevant sound bites. In fact, it seems it all she talks in. Does she ever relax? But even she worries about the poor turnout. "It felt like we were trying to wake the dead -- even with loudspeakers," she reveals. "The national media seems to be trying to whip up apathy nationally." Smith feels however that the people who did go out and vote "Voted for the candidates that will do the best job for their areas."

"They've shopped around," she says, "and voted for people who live in their wards."

12.20. There's another lull in the declarations. Some groups look despondent. The Greens -- the only party that wants to sit together, it seems -- haven't had a win yet, and look especially down. But not as devastated as Tricia Heath, despite a brave face. "I'm disappointed after all the hard work," says Tricia. "I've had a lot of bad media." But she's pleased for the two MBIs that did win in Poulton, and sure they'll continue to do good work.

University Labour and Conservative candidates (on right) plus lab supporters. The Conservatives has just told Labour about the Burnley BNP result and both are temporarily united in horror.
University Labour and Conservative candidates (on right) plus lab supporters. The Conservatives has just told Labour about the Burnley BNP result and both are temporarily united in horror.

1240 Tim from Radio Lancashire tells us that the fascist British National Party are now the official opposition in Burnley. For a brief moment, the Labour and Conservative teams from the University are united in outrage.

1250 Conservative campaign organiser Coun Roger Mace (re-elected with ease to Kellet) feels it's too early to comment on the results, but he's pleased the Conservative vote is up, by about a third, it seems. Nationally, the party has a good night, winning over 540 seats largely at Labour's expense.

John Whitelegg
John Whitelegg is quizzed by the press after his win in Bulk

1.02 am Finally, the Greens win their first seat -- and it's John Whitelegg in hotly contested Bulk Ward, where he's lived for 26 years. He's delighted, and I think a little gobsmacked. "It's going to take some getting used to," he agrees.

"The Green Party have had a major breakthrough," he declares, clearly delighted. "I'm looking forward to more of the same and looking forward to doing the things we set out to do."

He's sure the Green Party's way of doing things is what's made people willing to give them a chance. "We've been very active in the last four years," he says, alluding to campaigns to keep Chelverton Properties from building their unwanted supermarket and divisive Link Road. "People appreciate being kept informed, and not just two weeks before the election." OK, but we'd still like to have a had the two weeks prior in Skerton if you're putting up candidates their, John.

Coun Ian Barker
Coun Ian Barker -- had a hard fought campaign in Bulk and won

Bulk Labour Councillor Ian Barker clearly isn't pleased to have lost a seat to the anyone in Bulk. It's their first loss in the ward since 1969. "John Whitelegg is well known," he acknowledges, " and they fought a good campaign. "Anti war feeling was definitely a factor on the doorstep." It could have been worse -- in Preston an anti war campaigner won a seat. There was clearly no "war dividend" for Labour in these elections.

Still Abbott Bryning was pleased his friend had, like him, retained his seat and Tricia Heath had been ousted. "It's a victory for the District Auditor," he declared, referring to the Blobbygate report.

Castle winners: Greens Chris Coates, Anne Chapman, John Barry, just a minute after getting their result.

1.50am Castle Ward returns an all-Green line up. "Four years ago they said the Greens were a flash in the pan," Jon Barry announces from the podium. "Well it wasn't." It helps of course that Jon's been a good councillor, delivering on promises to his voters. There's even one story of him getting so fed up that one old lady's garden rubbish wasn't being cleared as promised by the Council that he went down and did it himself. We're sure there some councillors that would never do such a thing.

2.05am Heysham Central declares. Winner Joyce Taylor thanks the tellers. "You must all be very tired," she says. Actually by this point we're all very tired. The BBC TV man has already gone home. (I later find out that huge cities like Birmingham were turning in a final result by 2.00am while Lancaster doesn't declare until after 3.00. Something Chief Returning Officer Mark Cullinan will, I'm sure be looking at in future).

2.10am The first Liberal Democrat victory of the night -- two councillors in the University Ward. One is Stuart Langhorn, a teacher at Morecambe High who graduated from the University in 1993. "I'm privileged to represent the University I went to," says Stuart.

"This sends a clear message that Labour policies on education are wrong," he feels, delighted at the result, "and that students do want to be involved in the town." Not many of them though, judging by the turnout? "We want to improve that," he agrees, "and make students realise we can be part of the wider community."

2.20am Serial local newspaper letter writer Richard Newman-Thompson polls a miserable 93 votes in the Lower Lune Valley. It's the only announcement that nets derisive laughter on the night. We doubt it will stop him writing letters.

3.00am -- or just after, my senses have dulled. It's all over with a sweeping Labour victory in John O'Gaunt ward. Appropriately, it's Mayor Eileen Blamire who steps up to the microphone last to thank her voters and everyone who's worked on the count with a very gracious speech.

With that, the electioneering is over and we all drift off into the night. Until the General Election of course, when daggers will be drawn again and many politicians roll up on our doorsteps for the first time in a couple of years because we the voters, are suddenly important to them again. For now though, the new councillors have to find their feet, start work and, hopefully, honour promises. As one councillor told me, quoting an American senator after he lost: "Democracy has decided... the bastards."

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