Twenty years ago today (been going in and out of style)

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Looking out of the window at a rather grey and cool day, I remember that the weather on May 1st 1997 was nicer than it was today. There’s every possibility that’s just the memory cheating on me, but I don’t recall it as being one of those election days where we spent it huddled in the committee room waiting for a break in the clouds, or where your hands started getting numb from cold after too much final hours door-knocking as the sun went down.

I was in Colchester, of course, having come here to work at the University the year before and only discovering after my arrival that it was a Liberal Democrat target seat – indeed, the Liberal Democrat target seat in the East of England. One thing that’s hard to get over today in a time of easily spread information – how many sites can give you a list of every party’s targets from the possible to the ridiculous in just a few seconds? – is just how little anyone knew about what was going on in the rest of the country. There was the just the little bubble of what was going on in your constituency, and I was just a foot soldier then, doing deliveries and the occasional evening of canvassing when I had the chance. From that little bit of voter contact, things felt good to me but it was the first General Election campaign I’d been involved in so I had nothing to judge it against. For all I knew, we could be ten thousand votes ahead or ten thousand votes behind.

I was up early on the morning of the election, delivering a bunch of bright yellow Good Morning leaflets along Mile End Road before the polling stations opened at 7am. That’s a good piece of exercise to get you going in the morning as the road goes up a hill and a lot of the houses are set back from the road putting them further up the hill, meaning I was going up and down a lot of stairs to get those deliveries done. That’s something that hasn’t changed much in the last twenty years – there’ll be people out doing the same this coming Thursday for the local elections, just as they will on June 8th for the general election. The rest of the day, though, was in something’s the changed completely in the last twenty years.

1997 was right on the cusp of technology changing elections. We were wowed by talk of how all Labour candidates had pagers to keep them in constant touch with party HQ (there was a probably apocryphal story about a Labour MP refusing to take part in a sponsored swim because he’d have to be separated from his pager for the duration). Desktop publishing meant leaflets were being designed and printed in-house and canvass cards were printed grids from EARS, into which all canvass data was entered. There weren’t enough resources or knowledge around, however, to enable all of the constituency’s polling day to be run by computer, so most of the constituency was still doing it the old-fashioned way. Every polling district had its own committee room, and in each of those rooms was a big table with a bunch of Shuttleworth lists stuck to it.

Shuttleworths are named for the printing company who used to produce them for the Liberal Party. (In the Labour Party, they’re known as Reading lists, because it was Reading Labour Party who popularised the use of them) They were several sheets of carbon paper in different colours (always the same order, though someone else will have to tell you what that was) onto which you’d print details of all the people you expected to vote for you, usually with one sheet per road. When telling sheets arrived from the polling station, the person in charge of the committee room would go through the numbers on the sheet, check them against the numbers on the Shuttleworths and cross through anyone who had already voted. Because they were all on carbon paper, a line drawn through on the top would cross them off all the sheets below. Then, when it was time for someone to go out and deliver to or knock up people who hadn’t voted yet, they would take the topmost sheet from each Shuttleworth and have an up-to-date list of who needed to be got out to vote, while the committee room still had list with people who had already voted crossed off. The different colours and the visibility of the lines crossing out voters enabled you to see quickly which areas were most in need of attention during the day, with the aim being that the only sheets remaining on the table at the end of the day would be the ones where all the targeted voters had been crossed off. There was an elegance and ritual to it all that had built up over the years to make it a very efficient system given the constraints of the time, but it’s not hard to see why this would be its last hurrah.

The day passed by through door knocking while carrying around sheets of carbon paper and then it was time for the count. On the surface that looked just like it does today: Charter Hall with two big squares of tables (one for North Essex, one for Colchester), lots of people wearing rosettes wandering around outside the squares while inside them a small army of council staff were verifying, sorting and counting ballot papers. The key difference was in the amount of information from outside that was getting in there. In counts now, there are TVs in the hall and almost everyone’s got a smartphone where every bit of election news is at their fingertips. Then, there were just a handful of phones and information came via a whispered telegraph as people who’d been out to their cars told of what they’d heard on the radio. ‘Landslide’ and ‘400 seats’ started circling the room, followed by names of Cabinet members reported to be in trouble, even an obviously crazy rumour that Michael Portillo might be in danger of losing his seat.

And amidst all that, the Colchester count was turning out to be agonisingly close. Every new set of votes to be verified or counted brought a rush of people to the relevant tables to watch and count, the information being totted up on calculators to try and calculate what was going on. As the night drew on, there were more names of fallen ministers, more talk of seats that had fallen to the Liberal Democrats – we might win over 30 seats, someone even said 40 was possible! – and more obviously ridiculous mentions of Portillo. Meanwhile, it became clear that Colchester was looking too close to call. There were three big stacks of bundled votes in the centre of the tables, the ones for Russell (Liberal Democrat) and Shakespeare (Conservative) were almost identical in size, both just a little bit bigger than the pile for Green (Labour). It was past 3am now, and ‘recount’ was being muttered in resigned tones as people eyed the last dozen or so bundles of counted but unchecked votes that would perhaps break the deadlock. They were brought over to the counters, triggering another rush of people to watch, looking to see how they all were split.

And all of the bundles were Bob Russell ones. Suddenly what had looked close was now a clear victory by over a thousand votes, no recount required. All that work had paid off, and we finally had a golden oasis in the East of England, one Liberal Democrat victory amidst the red and blue that made up the rest of the region.

After that, there was a private party in the Britannia pub – now a Gurkha restaurant, while the campaign’s HQ on North Hill is a Thai – where I saw a TV for the first time that night and saw that all the talk was true. There was a Labour landslide, Blair was heading for number 10 and a dejected looking Michael Portillo was there in Conservative HQ while John Major conceded defeat. A world where Bob Russell was going to be an MP and Michael Portillo wasn’t felt very different from the one I’d known for the past two decades.

I finally got home sometime after 6am, more than twenty-four hours after I’d got up the day before, but still not tired. There were results still coming in, Labour’s number still ticking up over 400, as the Liberal Democrat one went over 40 and the Tories stuttered and slumped well below 200. It was another sunny day, ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ was on a constant loop and Tony and Cherie were off to the Palace. It was finally time to catch up on sleep, and when I did, I didn’t dream of a future like this.

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