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"You’re Telling Me?" Election Day Blues for the Tories

by Richard Pooley

I have not voted for you lot.” the young woman said, jabbing her index finger into the blue rosette pinned to the chest of the man alongside me. “Your government is a disgrace! These ID checks. You are undermining democracy.”

It was 8.30 a.m. on a chilly but, thankfully, rainless Thursday in Bath, England. I was standing outside a church hall, the polling station where people were voting in the English local elections to choose two councillors to represent our ward on the Bath & North-east Somerset Council. I had flown in from Toulouse the evening before and had had only a few hours’ sleep before going down the hill at 07.00 to vote and ‘tell’.

What is telling?” ask people who know nothing of British election jargon. Even those who are political activists often don’t understand what it is. But then many such activists don’t get the real purpose of much of what they do at election time. For example, the main reason you canvass is to find out where your supporters are and what’s worrying them, not to tell people how brilliant your party’s policies are (when were you last persuaded to vote for a party by someone yakking at you on your doorstep?).

Telling is trying to establish who among your supporters has voted. Tellers are those people you see at British elections standing outside the polling station, each one wearing the rosette of their party, whose task it is to ask you for your voter registration number before you go in to vote...or your name...or your address; anything that will enable the teller to pass on to their party’s HQ who on the electoral register has voted. If the canvassing has been accurate, HQ should know which supporters have yet to vote in person (rather than by post) and send out instructions from lunchtime onwards to party workers to ‘knock up’ these laggards.

There is another piece of election jargon. I spent two hours that Thursday knocking up voters. US American readers can be assured that no impregnation took place (just as it doesn’t when British tennis players knock up with each other before the start of a match)*. I merely knocked on doors but, this time, I did yak:

Hi. I’m from the Liberal Democrats. Just to remind you it’s election day and that you have to take ID with you or you won’t be allowed to vote – your passport, driver’s licence, bus pass...but not a student card; not accepted by this Tory government, I’m afraid.”

In fact, I seldom got past “remind”.

Don’t worry. I’ll get down there this evening.” (tell HQ to revisit tonight if not voted)

I’ve already voted.” (useless HQ)

I’ve voted but not for you.” (useless canvasser)

Telling in local elections is only done by a party if they think they have a good chance of winning in a particular ward. That’s why there were no Labour or Green tellers standing alongside me and the Conservative. In my ward and, in fact, in much of the city it’s usually a two-horse race – orange (Liberal Democrats) versus blue (Conservatives/Tories**). British readers will know this is not the norm in the UK.

For the first hour or so the Conservative teller was Taniya, the delightful wife of one of the Tory candidates. I had not met her before, despite her husband being a friend of mine. He’s a British Indian professor of Chinese and had been a Liberal Democrat councillor. But then he became an Independent after a long-running and ugly dispute over his behaviour towards a female party colleague (he asked me to mediate but nothing came of it). Foolishly he had decided to then stand as a Conservative, instantly losing the support of those people in the ward who thought he’d been badly treated by us Lib Dems and had done some good things for them as their councillor. As my own canvassing had revealed, no way would they vote for a Tory.

It’s normal for the tellers from opposing parties to work together outside the polling station. Incoming people don’t have to stop when a teller asks them for their electoral number. And they won’t do so if badgered by more than one teller. Several look startled, some offended, one or two furious. The angriest this time was a young woman parking her bicycle: “I don’t have to tell you. It’s a secret.” She must have thought I was asking her how she was going to vote, a common misconception. Most, in fact, will tell you their number, finding it on the letter which tells them where to vote. Several, assuming we were election officials, also took out their passport or whatever ID they were bringing and gave that to me or Taniya. A teller can be pretty certain that if the voter hands their letter to them unbidden, that person will vote for the teller’s party. It was the first time Taniya had ever telled (her husband asked me to help her). She learned the ropes fast and was good at intercepting people before they went in to vote. Even so, most people headed for my orange rosette rather than her blue one. After two hours I was quietly confident our two Lib Dem candidates were going to win.

I learned a lot about Taniya in the first hour. She had been one of her husband’s students in Kolkata and had afterwards spent time in Beijing polishing her Chinese. She’d gone back to India and got an excellent job in New Delhi, even working in the Indian Prime Minister’s office for a while. But when she came to England, no British company would look at her qualifications or her references: they were not British. Sainsbury’s thought her unsuited to work at their supermarket check-outs but Morrison’s did take her on. There she found a mentor and rose rapidly. Now? She is employed by the Council to teach parenting skills to Bathonians. It was a culture shock: “When I started I had never heard of terms like ‘biological mother’, ‘single mother’, ‘partner’. We don’t have this kind of thing in India”

Taniya was replaced as Tory teller by Hamza, one of her husband’s students. Born in Iran he had moved to Afghanistan and from 2008 until June 2021 he worked with the British army there as an interpreter and fixer. He carried a rifle, he told me, but had never had to use it. The British got him, his wife and young daughter out two months before the Western allies’ ignominious exit from Afghanistan. Now settled in Bath (his wife had a second daughter a few months ago) he is doing a PhD in Entrepreneurship among Refugees. He had barely finished telling me this in his softly-spoken, near-perfect English when the young woman’s finger jabbed his blue rosette and cursed his government for undermining democracy by insisting on voters providing a photo ID in order to vote. He was bemused. He didn’t know what she was talking about. I explained.

The Conservative government introduced the ID rules for this year’s elections because, they claimed, they wanted to stop voters pretending to be someone else and voting more than once. The only evidence of this ever happening recently was in one area of London. The UK’s Electoral Commission pointed out there were just seven allegations of fraud at polling stations in last year’s elections; and no convictions. It’s a sledgehammer to crack a pea. Or, much more likely, a blatant attempt to stop non-Conservative voters from voting. Why are student cards and young person’s railcards invalid but old people’s bus passes acceptable? I asked Hamza if he had been asked by his Conservative candidates to make a note of anyone who had been turned away at the polling station because they had not brought the right ID? He hadn’t been.

I asked him how Afghans viewed ‘Western Democracy’. “People thought it was yet another way for politicians to cheat them.” He quoted a Law professor of his: “It was like putting a BMW engine into a Trabant.”

Hamza was not entitled to vote. I didn’t ask him if he would have voted Conservative. I learned afterwards that a later Tory teller, another of the candidate’s students but a British one, had told the Liberal Democrat teller that he was only doing his professor a favour. He had actually voted for our candidates.

I had worried that the new ID rules would reduce our vote. But it didn’t take me long to realise that was unlikely. Their hurried introduction, without much trialling, had motivated people, particularly the younger ones, to vote against the Conservatives. That angry woman who jabbed Hamza’s rosette was only the first I met on election day who mentioned it as a reason for voting at all. And soon after I started telling, an elderly woman approached me in some distress asking me to assure her that she had brought the right ID. She had and may well have voted Conservative. But how many other old people, traditional Tory voters, had been too afraid to vote because they might “get it wrong” and “be made to look a bloody fool”?

I am not alone in thinking this. None other than the Brexit-loving, Conservative Member of Parliament for North-east Somerset, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said last week that the new voter ID rules had backfired on his party:

"Parties that try and gerrymander end up finding that their clever scheme comes back to bite them, as dare I say we found by insisting on voter ID for elections…We found the people who didn't have ID were elderly and they by and large voted Conservative, so we made it hard for our own voters and we upset a system that worked perfectly well”

Rees-Mogg’s constituency surrounds that of Liberal Democrat Bath. The two constituencies make up the area governed by the Bath & North-east Somerset Council (BANES). In the local election on May 4 the Liberal Democrats won 41 seats out of 59***, 4 more than before. The Conservatives were reduced to 3 councillors, down 8. Just four years ago they had had ten times as many councillors. The Liberal Democrat councillor for the area which includes Rees-Mogg’s family home held on to his seat with 75% of the vote.

It was reported last week that 99.8% of people in BANES who voted at polling stations did have the correct ID. 141 people were turned away for not having the right ID, of whom 85 came back with the ID which allowed them to vote. 56 people not being able to vote is not a lot but in some seats at local elections majorities can be in double or even single figures. More importantly, how many people were put off voting at all because of these new rules? Will the Tory government scrap them in time for the general election in no more than 19 months? And if so, what will their argument be for doing so?

By 16.00 on election day the Lib Dem HQ had told all us party workers in Bath to stop knocking up and to get across to the one ward in the city we looked like losing. We did lose it. To the Greens. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all...especially if you are a Liberal Democrat. Tell you what though: it was great fun.

*This reminds me of the time in the late 1960s when I was staying with the senior game ranger in Luangwa National Park, Zambia. I was 17. He had several other guests, young US American zoologists. My first evening, keen to be helpful, I asked if I could “lay the table”. The Americans fell about laughing: “You Brits lay tables?!”

**Ostensibly one and the same. But whereas a supporter will say “I vote Conservative”, an opponent will say “Anybody but the bloody Tories”

***There was no voting in one ward. One of the two Green Party candidates had died. It’s a safe Labour seat. So, Labour can expect to have 7 councillors on the Council, making them the official opposition to the Liberal Democrats.


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