Monthly Archives: May 2010

Does Birmingham Need to Call in Independent Election Observers?

An account of day touring Birmingham’s polling booths – uncovering widespread irregularities – including rescuing a hapless Lib Dem – finding campaign literature inside polling booths – voters locked out of stations – people being ‘helped’ to vote – Do we need independent election monitors?

Back in 2004 the integrity of Birmingham’s democracy was famously questioned by a Judge who found electoral conduct which would, in his exact words, “disgrace a banana republic.”* Fast forward to the 2010 General Election and I found myself as the Agent for the Conservative Parliamentary candidate for Ladywood.  This is the same area that worried the judge six years earlier.  So, have things improved?  Well, – yes and no… they’ve started to solve the problem with postal votes, but things are getting worse at the polling stations.

So, let’s start with the polling stations.   I went to a sample of a dozen or so.  I was left wide-eyed with disbelief.  At every station which had ‘tellers’ (party activists) present there was a total disregard for the rules.  There is not supposed to be any campaign material within 100 meters of the entrance to a polling station.  This allows people to enter without fear or pressure.  In all the polling stations I saw there were activists aggressively handing out leaflets at the gates.  There was also campaign material (banners etc.) tied to the railings of the gates as people entered.  At the first polling station I went to there was a van with a full Labour logo on parked directly opposite the station entrance with a loud-speaker system on its roof.  It was literally broadcasting campaign messages into the polling station.  Any voter who wanted to get to the station could not enter without having literature hoist on them and verbal encouragement for particular candidates.  The leaflets were ‘helpful’ guides on how to vote – semi-official looking instructions to place an x in a particular box (with worked examples showing the candidates name and party logo).  Shockingly in two polling stations I found these leaflets had been left on the writing surface of the polling booths.  I’ll say that again – there was party campaign literature actually on display in the polling booths themselves.

I did speak with the Station Presiding Officers and they had all spoken with the activists at the entrances but had been ignored.  The police had been notified and attended but the activists had simply gone away when the police arrived and returned when they went.  In an earlier pre-election briefing the council had told me that the Police would have a dedicated single-point-of-contact to deal with any issues.  I decided ring them since the activists had such contempt for the Presiding Officer and I.   Not being a 999 matter I rang the police station directly.  I was on hold for over fifteen minutes without answer before I hung up.  I then tried the elections office at the council to report it – again I spent ten minutes on hold before I gave up waiting.  The activist army outside the polling station stayed put harassing arriving voters.

At the next station we found another gaggle of Labour activists handing out their material at the gates – cars were again parked opposite the entrance all with large Labour placards covering their windscreens on prominent display.  We went inside and found a Lib Dem activist actually handing out leaflets within the premises!  When challenged she broke down in tears.   According to her she had tried to position herself at the gates but had suffered such verbal abuse from the Labour activists that ‘she only felt safe inside the station’.  We offered her a lift to a ‘safe’ polling station.  ‘Rescuing’ an activist from another party was certainly the most surreal moment of the day.

Whilst driving the Lib Dem to ‘safety’ we finally found a Police Officer.  The PC had pulled over campaigners for an independent local council candidate who the Lib Dem referred to as ‘The Somalian’.  They were in a car with a tannoy set-up and had been broadcasting ‘Please-Vote’ messages at volume whilst driving around the area.  The crazy thing here is that having finally found the police they were tackling the only activists who I had seen campaigning legally!  To be fair to the constable the driver didn’t have insurance – but the irony still shouldn’t be lost.   After a quick chat with the officer she contacted her control room to find out who the police single-point-of-contact for the election was. Nobody in the control room knew.  She agreed she would pop round to the polling station herself, but didn’t seem to have had any briefing whatever about what is or is not acceptable (or legal) by activists so I’m unsure what good she would be able to do.

Now, in case you think “so long as activists are outside the gates then anything goes” you need to know that there are defined rules about what people are allowed to do in the vicinity of a polling station.  A ‘teller’ is allowed to stand near to the entrance and ask voters their polling card number only.  This allows the more organised parties who have canvassed to check if the people that said they would support them have actually voted.  Towards the end of the day a Party with a decent teller operation can then chase up all its supporters who haven’t yet voted and if necessary offer them lifts to the polling booths.  The Electoral Commission has brought all the rules about tellers together in Appendix E of this document here.   It is several thousand words, so to pull out just the salient bits:

“3.3 Tellers should not display or distribute election material (e.g. billboards, posters, placards or pamphlets) on walls or around the polling place.  […]

[…]

3.5 Tellers must not attempt to induce, influence or persuade an elector how or whether to vote. Tellers cannot promote particular candidates or political parties. Their conduct must not give rise to allegations of undue influence, e.g. discussing voting intentions, party affiliations, a candidate’s history or party campaigns, or undertaking any other activity particularly associated with one particular party or candidate.”

Every time I showed activists these rules on May 6th they looked at me like I was from another planet.

My afternoon tour brought more of the same across the constituency.  The day’s most serious incident was when I left a polling station in north Ladywood.  I’d had a chat with the activists at the gate and politely made them aware of the rules – prompting the charade of a temporary withdrawal until I was out of sight.  As I got back into my car a young women tapped on my window.  “Are you something to do with the election?”  She explained she had seen me having a word with the others, and assumed I was someone ‘official’.  She wanted me to know that the polling agents in the station had insisted that when her mother, who spoke only little English, went into the polling station they escorted her to the booth and filled the mothers ballot paper for her. I’ll not name the party accused as this is anecdotal.  She was livid; “It’s just not right.  Some of them are my family, man – but they stole my mother’s vote and it aint right.”   When I retold that tale to people who lived in the area they were unsurprised and told me the practice was widespread.   If true, one has to wonder the level of training given to Station Presiding Officers to allow this –  I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised  – on the evidence of everything I had seen with my own eyes that day it is clear that very few of the people running our polling stations have even basic knowledge of what is and isn’t allowed.

The  answer to all the polling station issues  is to stop trying to police our elections on the cheap.  If our democracy matters – and I hope it does – then we should properly train the station presiding officers to run tighter ships within the station and have the Police available at the polling stations to quickly clamp down on any unacceptable behaviour outside.  I hope that the specific problems I saw were down to over-enthusiasm and ignorance by party activists rather than centrally co-ordinated misintent.  Regardless of whether it is cock-up or conspiracy being unable to guarantee our electorate can reach the ballot box without interference or pressure begins to chip away at the notion that our elections are ‘free and fair’.  The disregard for the rules must stop and only the Police have the clout to enforce them.  Even if putting a copper at every single polling station is unrealistic, we could still go a long way by prioritising the stations that have a history of issues – yes that means Ladywood would get far more Police attention – but if that is where the problem is, then this is where the solution is needed.

Let’s get onto postal votes.  This was where it went so wrong in 2004.  The good news here is that giant strides in the right direction have been made.  I was present at the electoral office when I saw a chap come in and try to register himself as a proxy for 16 postal votes – I’m pleased to report that he was politely but firmly told he could be proxy for no more than two unless they were immediate family.

At the postal count in Birmingham (which gets underway a week before polling day) there’s spawned a whole temporary industry checking every single ballot paper received to ensure that the envelope numbers and ballot paper numbers match –  all envelopes are passed through a scanner to check individual signatures and dates-of-birth against those held in the database.  Any which the computer software says may be suspect are removed for human adjudication.  I watched the adjudication and agreed with the call the official made every time.   This is a step forward – the old fraud where cheats would get themselves a copy of the ‘marked electoral register’ from the council to see who never votes and then send in false postal ballot papers from these apathetic voters is stopped by this system.  What the system will not stop is people from bullying or intimidating their family members or friends by demanding to inspect their postal ballot before they send it to ensure that “they have filled it in correctly”.   That is the downside of the postal voting – it needs to be balanced with the large number of people who work away from home in the week and for whom the availability of a postal vote stops them being disenfranchised.  The system isn’t perfect, but it now requires much greater effort and more willing co-conspirators if you wanted to pull off a major fraud.   I await the council to publish official figures but I would estimate from what I saw that about 10% of the postal votes received were rejected for various reasons.  It is sad to see how many people who went to the trouble of filling in the ballot paper then forget to sign the envelope and so waste their vote.

Back to the polling booths – One thing I did not observe myself, but is suggested to be widespread in the constituency is ‘personation’.  This is where someone simply claims to be someone else and votes on their behalf.  There is very, very little we can do about this as under current rules there is no power for the polling officials to demand any form of identification.   Obviously, an individual would be foolish to try and vote at the same station twice – but with scores of polling stations in each constituency, anyone who has seen the marked electoral register will know the names of people who usually do not vote.  It would not require great wit to do a tour of polling booths and vote scores of times.   An organised team could quickly wrack up hundreds of votes this way.  I make no claim that this happened in Ladywood in this election – I simply say that the lack of any system to prevent it allows rumours that it occurs to persist.

There is the well known saying that “opportunity creates the thief”.  So much of our electoral procedures are based on a very quaint British notion of trust.  British MPs showed in last year’s expenses debacle that even the supposedly honourable can be quick to take advantage of trust based systems.  Should we assume that there are no elements of the population who would take the opportunity to cheat if they could in the elections?  Of course not.  It is naive to assume it doesn’t go on.  Individual ballot boxes from certain stations in Ladywood apparently had turnout 20-30% higher than would have been expected.  This may be because a party had been incredibly successful in mustering the vote and a credit to them – or it may be that after the vote had closed an insider simply ticked off the remaining names on the register, filled in a whole load of ballot papers and stuffed the box.  We hope the former but we have too much trust and too few checks and balances to be certain.  Fraud could happen.

If all that wasn’t enough we also had one polling station at St Pauls Square which was so understaffed that around 100 people were denied the chance to vote at all despite having arrived in what should have been ample time, before the station closed at 10pm.  This was particularly irritating for our Party as it is one of the stations where we do well.  At least this incident has already attracted national media attention which prompted this report by the electoral commission here.

When you put everything together you do begin to imagine how an outside observer would view the proceedings.  As it happens there were some Observers present from Commonwealth countries across the UK.  The Kenyans were shocked that they see our ballot security as a lower standard than their own.  Well, they were looking at the orderly parts of the country – one wonders how much stronger their words would have been had they been in Ladywood.  Perhaps that is what is needed to raise our game?  It would be embarrassing to be lectured by Afghans or Iraqi’s on running a free and fair ballot – but if they observed what I observed they couldn’t objectively report faith in the result.

One thing I would stress is that for all the irregularities and potential for irregularities that I saw Shabana Mahmood’s majority is such that there is no doubt whatever in my mind that she was the rightful winner.  I’m confident she knew nothing of, and had no direct part in any dodgy activities by her activists.  Likewise her Lib Dem opponent.  I would also make no claim that there is any particular party worse than another in polling fraud or conduct.  Indeed I note that just up the road from me in Walsall three Tories have been charged with regards this election.

I would also not want to cast blame on Birmingham Council’s elections office.  They were courteous, professional and helpful throughout – they are constrained in scope by their minimal statutory powers and their available budget.

I have to say though that because of what I saw on May 6th if the result had been anywhere near close I would not feel confident it could be trusted. That can’t be right.  This is the United Kingdom in 2010.  If we value our democracy we have to tighten up procedures and we have to better police our polling booths and the security of the ballot boxes from end-to-end of the process – I understand that there would be a cost involved – but when you think of those who have died for our democracy then protecting their legacy has to be worth it.

* You can read the background to the ‘banana republic quote from this report in the Times Newspaper here.

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Filed under Center right, Election, Politics, UK, UK Politics

Out Of All Proportion – The Huge Surge in Support for PR

The British are a funny lot.  Currently there seems to be a parallel consensus that:

  • Our voting system last week produced the farce of secret smoke-filled room deals where people horse trade this-bit-and-that-bit of their manifesto for a seat at the big boys’ table.  This is vulgar, ‘undemocratic’ and a betrayal of what people actually voted for.
  • Therefore we need Proportional Representation to make it all ‘fair’ and so that people can get what they voted for.

It is absurd that there are so many people who agree with both statements despite their obvious mutual contradiction.  If you think  closed-door horse-trading stinks you cannot  be in favour of PR.  Under PR you would have that farce after every single election.  The key difference would be that the likes of Nick Griffin would also be in the room getting concessions aligned with his agenda before anyone could get on and govern.  Aside from the BNP (with 11 seats)  being the most extreme example, other people who would be able to hold the nation to ransom (had last weeks voting been under PR) would be UKIP (17 seats)  and the Greens (5 seats)*

The current First-Past-The-Post system does have flaws.  People say that Tories only favour the system because it favours them – well, that’s not true – think on this:  Labour got 34% of the vote in 2005 and 356 seats – (and there was no national outrage in favour of PR then!).  Whereas last week the Conservatives got 36% of the Vote but only 306 seats.    Whilst Labour were able to comfortably hold a five-year term with their 34%, frankly we’ll do well to even get through a year with our 36%.  The system, as is, is significantly weighted in Labour’s favour.  So why do the Tories support it?

My instincts remain that running a country by committee of people who can’t stand each other is a recipe for gridlock and failure.  The principal of our current representative democracy is sound – each area votes for an individual, if that area thinks he did a rotten job they can vote him or her out at the end of each term.  The link between a member and a constituency is a valuable part of our democracy which we would be foolish to throw away.  However, I do accept that it is an uncomfortable fact that very, very few MPs will actually have got more than 50% of their vote locally.

The more I think about it the more  the answer seems to be to concede that the Alternative Vote (AV) may be the way to go.  Under this system every candidate elected would have had a positive vote from over 50% of voters in their constituency (albeit not necessarily as first preference – but the voter at least had the chance to express their ‘true’ intention first – and then vote their next best option second knowing the second choice only counts if their first choice fails – it removes the need for ‘tactical’ voting, keeps the principal of constituencies and every voter knows that their vote mattered.   This gives the MP confidence in their mandate.  We also need to do more work to even up the size of constituencies to stop the system being so weighted in favour of any one party.  This coming Parliament will give us a chance to do that.

For those still demanding PR  perhaps there is a compromise through which it can be accommodated in part.  The obvious solution is to have PR in the Lords.  If we are to move to an elected second chamber then in this arena PR makes more sense.  There is no link between representatives and constituencies to break in the Lords.  Appointments to the upper house have always been about patronage so it isn’t a particular step backwards that people placed at the top of party lists are guaranteed their seats.  The one downside is that as a nation we’ve been served well from both less ‘party-political’  tribalism in the Lords and the existence of members who are genuinely apolitical.  Perhaps this could be balanced by mixing the available Lords seats with the vast majority being elected through PR – but supplemented by ‘apolitical’ members appointed on behalf of of key institutions – for instance  Senior Judges, University Vice-Chancellors, Heads of Key UK Faiths, Ex-leaders of the armed forces,  Local Government Leaders,  Science (perhaps appointed by the Royal Society), Heads of Royal Colleges of Surgery, Nursing etc.   I’m not sure if the supplementary idea could fly – it’s just an idea – but however we constitute the second chamber it would be a shame if we did lose the diversity of expertise we currently enjoy.

One thing does look certain – we seem set for some level of constitutional reform.  Given the proposals look to be for AV then I may be at odds with my party position and actually get out there and campaign for it.  Thank goodness that, despite the noise, PR for the commons no longer looks like it is on the table.

(*figures of likely seats under PR taken from Glyn Ley’s Blog)

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The Prime Minister – David Cameron

I have just watched two hours of utterly compelling television.  It was history in our living rooms.  Gordon Brown resigned with both dignity and humility –  I sincerely wish him and his family well and happiness for their future.

David Cameron is now Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.  On the steps of Number 10 Cameron echoed Brown’s dignity and humility in stating the task ahead of him.  The details of the deal with the Lib Dems are not yet in the public domain.  From the leaks to the press I am hugely encouraged that we may be cherry-picking their best ideas.  I have made no secret I love their £10k tax threshold idea and also that I do not think it time for the current Conservative inheritance tax plans.  If these are the compromises we must make – then I may actually prefer what we are getting to what was in our manifesto!  From my centre-right perspective there is the potential for us to do great things for this country now.  The spirit and tone of discussions in the last few days has risen way above the usual partisan politics – if the coalition is to be successful that spirit must remain.  If it does not – and I have no doubt the bulk of the money will be on it falling apart soon – then we will be back at the polls by September.

There was no mistaking the ‘One Nation’ subtext of Cameron’s words at the doorstep.  I have taken a huge leap of faith in following this man.  It is now time for him and the party to repay that trust.

Right now though, I have opened a bottle of something alcoholic.  I am celebrating.  I am thinking about all those people who put in all those hours to get a change of Government.  I raise a glass to them all this evening.  Tomorrow: there is work to do.

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Hung Parliament Leaves All Parties Hungover

An extraordinary election.  No supporter of the mainstream parties will wake this morning with anything other than disapointment about the national picture:

  • The Lib Dems must be crest-fallen.  The supposed surge was illusionary.  The expected shift to second place proved a fantasy.
  • Labour had their worst electoral night for decades. Unless Clegg pulls a spectacular U-turn it is clear that they cannot form a Government and have lost this election.
  • Despite this being the Conservatives ‘best gains in an election for 80 years’ with an even higher percentage of the vote than Labour got at the last election –  I’d be a liar if I said I was anything other than very disappointed with last nights results.   Yes, Labour ‘lost’ but the Conservatives can’t say we had the clear ‘win’ we all worked so hard for.

Nobody wakes up feeling great this morning.

Locally for me, there was an extra blow.   Despite great progress in the West Midlands in general,  in Birmingham itself we didn’t get a break-through in the City.  Deidre Alden in Edgbaston is very much in my thoughts today.  I can only begin to imagine the emotional investment she has put into her fight for this seat over more than half a decade.  I wish her well.  It was a remarkable result for Gisela Stuart and it would be churlish of me to say otherwise.  In Birmingham Ladywood where I was the Candidate’s Agent I took genuine comfort that we increased our share of the vote from 8% to 12% in a seat that we were told we  had gone into oblivion – but obviously this local advance in a third place seat is meaningless for the overall national picture.

I’m tired – it was an all-nighter for me at the National Indoor Arena count.  I’m deeply depressed by the whole hung-parliament scenario.  Even if we can form a Government through coalition or a minority administration I cannot see us being able to push through the ‘big ideas’ and more radical policies that drew me to fight for the Conservatives in this election.   An election campaign takes a real toll on candidates, agents and activists – it is physically and emotionally exhausting and work and family inevitably suffer.  I doubt any of us in any party have any appetite to go through it all again in short order.  The onus is now on the party leaders to find something that can work that will avoid that.  But unless that ‘something’ allows us to implement our agenda then a return to the polls will be necessary.  Power for powers sake isn’t why people should be in politics – if you can’t  implement your agenda and are crippled by the politics of compromise then it isn’t worth it.  I will sleep now.  Let the dust settle and see if the metaphoric hangover shifts.

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Why I Voted Conservative

So, that is that. After weeks of campaigning we are down to one mammoth push today. The polls are inconclusive – at the moment my reading of them suggests we may not quite get the 310 seats realistically required to form a majority government. It is close and much will come down to the operation today. Will the Conservative tactic of concentrating resources in key target marginals be the difference? It is cold and calculated, but you win Parliament by winning most seats, not be winning most votes. Can the Conservatives get out all their core supporters to the ballot box? Will the huge numbers of ‘undecideds’ actually go to the polling booths? – if they do the polls may prove miles out and it is anyone’s game. All this vapid speculation will sort itself out from 10pm this evening. I’ll be at the Count at the National Indoor Arena – wishing good luck to all Conservative candidates but particularly Nusrat Ghani in Ladywood and Mother and Son Deidre and Bobby Alden in Edgbaston and Erdington respectively.

I voted by post a few days ago (for Nigel Dawkins here in Selly Oak). For me it isn’t a tribal allegience – I am a newish member and convert to the Tories. There are a couple of big themes which have led me to believe in the Cameron agenda – it is these that have convinced me:

  • The ‘Big Society’ Agenda. OK – I admit this doesn’t land on the doorstep at all. But for me this is the core of the new brand of Cameron Conservatism. Thatcher famously said “There is no such thing as society” – Cameron, disagree’s wholeheartedly: “There is such a thing as society – it is just not the same thing as the state”.  Somehow over time the left have claimed words like “social justice” and “progressive politics” as if that language is exclusive to them. What nonsense.   The “Big Society” idea is ‘progressive politics’ in the literal sense and when implemented will lead to greater social justice.  Cameron’s message encapsulates my own personal centre right philosophy.
  • Avoiding our own Greek Tragedy.  We all pity the feckless individuals who get credit card bills showing them overdrawn and who have interest payments they can’t afford but who keep on spending regardless.  Yet a vote for Labour would be endorsing this behaviour at the nation state level.  It is heartbreaking that many cuts will need to be made whoever wins the election – the caricature of the Tories somehow taking glee from wielding an axe is wide of the mark.  If we don’t want to end up cap-in-hand to the IMF/Euro partners with the even more brutal austerity measures they would demand then we have to make very tough choices ourselves now.  It is fantasy to pretend otherwise.  The Conservatives want to avoid the bailiffs, Labour wish to wait for them.
  • Michael Gove’s policies on education.
  • Creating a new age in Government transparency by pushing out all government data into the public domain.  It is a geeky thing and another one that doesn’t land on the doorstep – but the effect will be revolutionary in driving better government.
  • David Cameron, Michael Gove, Liam Fox, William Hague , Ken Clarke
  • Gordon Brown, Harriet Harman, Bob Ainsworth, Peter Mandleson, Charlie Wheelan

Not everyone will agree with the above.  Different people will pick different reasons to support the Party – many people will be unconvinced and stick with what they know.   That’s democracy.  Here’s hoping for a decent turnout and enough people deciding that 13 years is time enough to get over their anti-Tory reservations, recognise the party has changed, and put an x in the box that will get us over that 310 seat line so we can do what is necessary to get our Society back on track.

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The Last Conservative Election Broadcast of this Campaign

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My “BBC Question Time” Audience Experience

Janet Street-Porter has a potty mouth.  Her verdict on the Leaders Debate?

“Too much fucking testosterone.  May as well just have been done with it and had the three blokes just slap their cocks on the table.”

Dimbleby raised a wry smile.  The audience chuckled.  There were two minutes left before we went live.  The naughty schoolboy in me willed her to say that again on air.  But you knew she wouldn’t – it was just a Ferguson style mind-game to knock the politicians thoughts before the first questions.  The lights dimmed, the cameraman counted down from five with his fingers Ted Rogers style.  Dimbleby put on his serious face;  “That’s it.  The three debates are over.  Tonight Question Time is live from the University of Birmingham….”.  The music kicked in.

I knew that Question Time was coming to Brum a few weeks ago.  Getting in the audience is something of a fixed lottery.  You fill in a form on the BBC Website, and have to confess your age, ethnicity and political leanings.  To decide which applicants to invite they want to make the audience reflect what the BBC see as a representative cross-section of Britain.  I’d taken a phone call a week before, the researcher wanted to check I was telling no porkies – yes I’m in my thirties, yes I am a Conservative.  So far, so good, then the conversation got a bit sticky. “Are you an actual member?”.  I confirmed I was.  “How active?”.  I could see I might get squeezed out here if not careful.  “Active”. I replied, adding;  “Sometimes delivering leaflets kind of active”.  I didn’t say that as I was speaking to him on my mobile, he had interrupted me on a doorstep actually pushing a Tory leaflet through a letterbox.   He paused.  You could sense his mind whirring that I might somehow be ‘too risky’ and that anyone who is properly politically active nowadays is far too freaky to qualify as a component of a ‘typical cross-section of the community’.   I filled the silence: “Look, I promise I’m not a councillor or candidate” (which is truthful, though I suppose not declaring I was an Agent could be a lie by omission if you’re being harsh) .  He paused again –  it was 50/50 but with a sigh he decided to go with me.  I was in.

It was a long night.  Because QT this week was essentially the first public reaction to the leaders debate immediately preceding it (same venue, same presenter) for security reasons we had to be there early.  We were all basically prisoners of the BBC from 6pm through to just before midnight.

First off we were put in a University gymnasium for sandwiches and tea while they tried to gather questions.  It was quite socially awkward.  Most people were there on their own – the people keenest to speak and introduce themselves were the kind of political bores that can empty a room at a party.  Keen to avoid an argument with a socialist I chose a quieter looking table and made small talk about anything but politics.

Eventually, a producer came in and gave a briefing.  All common sense stuff – if you want to speak keep your hand up.  If you put it down at any point David will assume you no longer want to comment.  If you do speak remember to put your hand down again when you start.  Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want your mother and four million strangers to hear you saying.  That kind of stuff.

We were then ushered into the actual studio (in another University gym).  The keen beans had rushed to the front and got the best seats.  Being the polite chap I am I ended up towards the back near the end of a row.  They had a brief rehearsal where they got folk from the audience to pretend they were in the panel to check the sound and camera angles.  One observation is that every single person who went on the rehearsal panel was later ‘called on’ during the live program.  So if you ever go to one and are desperate to get on telly do volunteer at the rehearsal stage!

They wheeled out the big screen and we watched the leaders debate (actually taking place only a couple of hundred yards from us) on the BBC feed.  It was OK watching it cinema style – and the audience was quite lively with their heckles and giggles. I couldn’t help but feel it would have been more fun with some booze though.  For me personally, interesting though the communal viewing was it wasn’t as good as my watching it with Sky the week before.

Once that was all over we had about half an hour before the program.  I chatted to the chap next to me who proclaimed that he couldn’t stand Cameron and was tilting to the Lib Dems.  I made the mistake of sharing I thought their views on the Euro and the immigration amnesty were bonkers.  I then got chapter and verse of the logic for the amnesty thrown back at me.  I don’t know why folk assume that if you don’t agree with something it must only be because you don’t understand it.  I fully accept that you can put together a coherent argument for an amnesty and I understand that argument.  I just fundamentally don’t agree with it.  This bloke, who rather strangely told me he was really an anarchist, seemed so chuffed at being able to articulate it that he couldn’t seem to grasp that I still didn’t agree and tried to explain it to me again.  I get it.  I get it.  I get it.  It is still bonkers.

Dimbleby arrived with ten minutes to go.  He walked in imperious, to loud applause, having just done what must have been one of the most prestigious gigs of his career.  He seemed unruffled about now having to do a live Question Time with next to no prep.  He played down the leaders debate saying he was just a glorified timekeeper and Question Time was the one he was looking forward to this evening.   The fibber.   He has the same aura in the flesh that has does on screen – the job he does is a difficult one and he does it superbly.  He remains a national treasure.

They pulled on the panel.  Other than Street-Porter it was A-list stuff.  We had Liam Fox, Vince Cable and Ed Balls representing the main parties – with Alec Salmond taking up the fifth place.  I’ve little time for Salmond but I will give him credit for the quip of the night.  When asked if his taking the BBC to court to get in on the leaders debate was ‘just a cheap publicity stunt’ he shot back deadpan; “I can assure you it was not cheap”.

The show itself, although an hour long, flew by.  I had wanted to get in on a couple of points but never got called.  The supposed anarchist Lib Dem sympathiser next to me had his hand up for the entire hour without any luck.  For me the moment of the show was Ed Balls response to Liam Fox’s charge that “Labour keep saying we’ll take £6bn out of the economy, they confuse the government with the economy”.

Balls shook his head;  “Cameron keeps saying that.  I just don’t understand it.  What does it mean? ‘The government is different from the economy’?  Can anyone explain it?”.  No Ed.  That you do not understand that money taken OUT of the real economy(the cashflow of companies and individuals) through taxation to be spent on the faux economy of State excess is obvious to everyone in the UK.  It’s why we are in the mess we are in.

It is frustrating not getting your moment of glory, particularly when some of the people who did get called seemed to have no coherent thread but just wanted to be filmed ranting – but I guess it is those rants that make Question Time the show it is and why the format is far better than the stilted format we had to endure for the actual leaders debates.

After such a long evening it all seemed to end quite abruptly and we were out just before midnight.  Desperate for a drink I headed into town.  I’d missed going to the Conservative’s Midland screening of the debate/activists bash to go  and so caught up with the hardcore who were still out at a city centre hotel.  Cameron had popped into the party straight after the debate and given a rallying call which had left everyone uplifted.  The bar we were in was packed with the journos and politicians returning from the debate – Gove was there, Fox came in not long after me looking very relaxed after his appearance – multiple nationally renowned journos who I will leave nameless were absolutely ratted at the bar and even Charlie Wheelan was doing the rounds at a venue dominated by Tories.  Finally a beer.  I turned my phone back on (having forgotton the beeb had made me turn it off earlier) and it went nuts with incoming texts.  Although I never got to make my point verbally, it turns out that whilst Ed Balls was speaking the camera cut away to the crowd and you couldn’t miss me shaking my head in rabid disagreement. People who I haven’t spoken to for donkey’s wanted to let me know they’d spotted me.  This little head shaking prod to the nation is therefore my only mass-media contribution to the ousting of this government.  As pathetically small and insignificant as this gesture is I honestly wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to make it for the world.  If you ever get the chance to go and watch Question Time live – do it.  It’s a decent night out.

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