Telling tales

Photo courtesy Yeovil Liberal Democrats

With the author’s grateful acknowledgements to ‘Louise’ and ‘Don’ (not their real names) for their personal insights into the North Shropshire by-election.

“It was as if they had no real concept of democracy in action.”

So says Louise, talking about the North Shropshire by-election in which the LibDems (Liberal Democrats) won such a stunning victory. Louise acted as a ‘teller’ (of which more later) and her experience of how unaware voters are about the election process, especially in a ‘safe seat’, is very telling (ho ho).

“One man changed his mind about not voting and came back later in the day after seeing how much effort the Libs had put in, and my explaining what a teller does and why. That will stay with me”, she says.

This was Louise’s third trip to Shropshire; on her first, she was accompanied by Don and five other activists from Somerset, and whilst Louise helped out with admin at LibDem HQ near Wem, Don and the others went door-knocking in Oswestry.

“It was an experience I will never forget”, says Don, “as time and time again the people of Oswestry were more than happy to chat about the by-election. I lost count of the number of times people told me that they’d always voted Conservative, but they’d never vote for Boris again.”

“We knocked on over 500 doors that day,” he continues, “talking to people who were at home, and posting leaflets,” (and he has the sore knuckles to prove it): the foot-slog and shoe-leather we sometimes hear about in election campaigns where the seat is contested. Hard campaigning and ‘telling’ is not something which usually features much in seats which are as ‘safe’ as Owen Paterson’s was: why would a very secure incumbent bother?

Complacency is dangerous though, especially where there is precedent. In June 2021, the LibDems took a previously safe Conservative seat in the Chesham and Amersham by-election, in a reversal of the Tories’ success in the last general election when so many seats in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ switched from Labour to Conservative. The North Shropshire result must compound the fear which should haunt the Conservatives that many voters across the country feel taken for granted by their MPs.

Even Ryanair got in on the trolling of the government…

Whatever our political affiliations – if any – everyone must concede that the LibDems’ victory in North Shropshire was astonishing: they overturned a Conservative majority of 23,000 – on a turnout of 46 per cent – and they have ended a nearly two-hundred-year-old tradition of the seat being held by Tory after complacent Tory.

The comments from voters in various ‘vox-pops’ have ranged from one Conservative lady with a cut-glass accent, who seemed to be in shock at the defeat (as well she might be), to people for whom the last straw was Boris Johnson’s Peppa Pig buffoonery in front of the CBI. More poignantly, one man seemed to be on the verge of tears as he explained he’d lost his sister to covid and he couldn’t forgive Johnson and his ilk for their actions.

What is certain is that although the by-election came about because of Tory sleaze – and the apparent inability of this government to accept that the rules apply to them, in pretty much any context, as much as to Joe Public – the seat was won by the LibDems at least partly through honest hard work, a concept perhaps not familiar to some in the current administration. The work put in by people – hundreds of them – like Louise and Don.

The LibDem campaign threw a lot of ‘human resources’ into winning the seat and it was clear from Louise’s experience that many voters, previously neglected by candidates because the seat was such a ‘safe’ one, weren’t used to the attention. Louise says,

“Usually there are other party volunteers doing the same thing, but in such a safe seat no-one had ever bothered at the station I was at, and many voters had no idea what I, one lone volunteer, was doing there, mistakenly thinking I was campaigning or doing something illegal. Even the station’s official wasn’t fully aware of the rules as she had never seen a teller at her polling station before!”

One voter even complained, until Louise explained why she was there, but, she says,

“Many asked for more information and were intrigued at something new in their voting experience.”

In fact, it’s extremely unlikely that any regulations were broken during the vote: the conduct of any election in the UK is pretty tightly controlled by officers whose primary duty – whatever post they hold – is to ensure that ballots are held according to the rules, and that electors are able to vote safely, freely, in secrecy and without any interference or intimidation.

“Polling station” by EEPaul is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This is why the Tories’ insistence that voter ID must be introduced to prevent voter fraud is so suspect: even former health secretary Matt Hancock (remember him?)  went on record saying the incidence of fraud in the 2019 election was extremely low. Thirty-two million votes were cast but just 164 individual cases of any irregularity or fraud were reported to the Electoral Commission. So why the need for photo ID? Might the Conservatives want to limit the number of voters from social groups and communities where, for example, having a passport or a photocard driving licence is not a given? Surely not…

Because UK schools don’t routinely teach children about our democracy and how it works, when they are old enough to vote many are either deterred from voting at all (and the average percentage of registered-voter turnout has more or less declined from a high of 83.9 in 1950 to the upper 60s since 2015,) or they don’t understand the election process. They may have a sense that their vote is ‘sacred’, but they have no idea how it’s kept that way and they are suspicious of what they see as interference.

Tellers are not election officers, but volunteers – usually party activists – and their role is to try to ascertain who has voted, so that known supporters who have not yet voted can be contacted by party workers to see if they need transport to the polling station, for example.

Louise explains:

“I sit at the polling station away from the voting room and I ask kindly if the voter would be happy to share their polling number and I say that they’re not required to if they don’t wish to. Some voters ask why I want to know, and some ask to know more about why they have never seen a teller or been asked for this before. You can’t ask about their voting intention or make any comment that could be viewed as campaigning, even if the voter chooses to give you any information freely. These rules are taken seriously by everyone who undertakes to be a teller.”

Did you know that? Or would you be as suspicious as some of the voters in North Shropshire when they were faced with someone asking politely if their names could be crossed off a list?

Perhaps it’s time we all took more notice of how our democracy is administered and protected before it’s too late.