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There is nothing in ordinary life that I can compare to the excitement of an election day and its culmination in the tension that accompanies the counting of votes. The canvassing that takes place in the lead up to the election is far more about identifying your supporters than selling yourself and your policies. When election day arrives you use that information to make sure that all of those who have promised support actually turn up at the polling station. Of course, you cannot know for certain who they cast their vote for, but the fact that they have voted, having previously stated that vote would be for you, gives you reason to hope.
Posters, too, are a guide to the strength of support. Unlike in many other countries, in the UK candidates are not permitted to place posters on street furniture. They are only allowed on private property. Where a house is close to the footpath that means a window. Where there is a front garden it could be a stake in the ground. Either way, it is a positive indication that at least one person in the household supports the advertised candidate.
In the last few days of the campaign lists of supporters and their addresses and voter ID numbers are made – these days I am sure this is done on computers, in the 1980s it was still done using ball point pens and carbon paper.
Helpers are positioned at each polling station where they politely ask each voter for their polling number. This information is then returned to a central point, the “committee room”, where those of your supporters who have voted are crossed off the list. Other helpers are sent out to knock on the doors of supporters – or they are telephoned – to remind them of the importance of voting and to offer a lift to the polling station. This activity becomes more and more hectic as the time approaches for the polls to close. By that time you have some idea of how many of your claimed supporters have voted. And, probably, a fair idea of what percentage of the total that is. It is only at the count that the accuracy of your estimate will be revealed.
The count for Cleethorpes elections traditionally took place in the Town Hall. This was true for County Council elections as well as Borough Council elections. Counts for the County were carried out in each of the constituent Boroughs and Districts. Our only information about what was happening in those other centres came from the local radio – there were no mobile phones with which to communicate with our colleagues across the county.
The counting procedure begins with the counting of total votes cast for each electoral division. The voting papers are then separated into piles for each candidate. In May 1985, in the division for which I was seeking election, the Town Clerk (Chief Executive Officer), in his capacity as returning officer overseeing the election, chose to count the votes of the sitting candidate first. That number amounted to rather less than 1/3 of the total votes cast.
I was immediately excited – I could not see how the other candidate had received more than 1/3 of the total, which would mean that I had. As the counting of the remaining papers continued I paced up and down the corridor outside the council chamber, hardly daring to believe that I was about to be declared the winner, but mentally rehearsing my acceptance speech anyway.
In due course the fact of my election was confirmed and announced. No other Liberal was as successful in Cleethorpes and, we quickly learned, the same was true in Grimsby. Later, listening to the radio as the final results were declared, we discovered 3 other Liberals had been elected, alongside 35 Conservatives and 36 Labour candidates. Liberals held the balance of power – effectively the casting vote – and thoughts immediately centred on how we could best use this power in the interests of the County.
I need now to provide an outline of the responsibilities of the different levels of local government in England at that time. Counties oversaw the education service, from kindergarten to third level and adult education; Social Services, notably children’s homes, nursing homes, family support and home caring – although there were private sector nursing homes there were also several council run homes. These were the two largest in terms of budget and number of employees.
Police and Fire Services, Economic Development, Libraries and Leisure, and major roads maintenance were also under the auspices of the County Council which covered a region with a population of about 850,000 and an area of 3,500 km²
District Councils were responsible for Housing, local parks and recreation, planning, local roads and footpath maintenance, refuse collection and disposal.
The County Council operated through seven committees, each responsible for a specific service, with oversight by an eighth committee, the Policy Committee, which consisted of the chairs of each of the service committees.
The first task for the Party group in the new council was to elect a leader who would conduct negotiations that might lead to the formation of a coalition. We chose John, the youngest of the four. He was the most experienced, having been elected to Hull City Council a couple of years before. Originally from Coventry, he had come to Hull to study and stayed, getting a job with the Hull Daily Mail.