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Our Guide to General Election Night 2015

"It looks like being a long election night this time so stock up on the drinks and sandwiches. We've put together your guide for the night hour by hour, if you can stay awake for the duration. 

Our guide tells you when the deciding constituencies results are expected and analysis of what they may mean. 

New to UK General Elections? Below you'll also find out what will be happening in counting halls across the United Kingdom from 10:00pm."  

                          Dr Ed Gouge

Election Night: Seat by Seat Analysis Through the Night


For all the detail click on the times listed:
  • Early indications of trends, exit poll accuracy and shifts since 2010. Expected to call between 11:00pm - 1:30am
  • Key marginals start to come into play. Expected to call between 1:30pm - 2:30am


About the 2015 Count: A Complex Picture

The long night in store is partly because the standard swing between Labour and Conservative that is normally the template for deciding the result is complicated by the other parties so that Green and UKIP interventions, how far the SNP surge goes and the extent to which the Lib Dems can hold on to their vote and, if they don’t who it will go to, will vary from area to area. 

It is also because there are local elections in many parts of England and so the counters have to separate out the local ballot papers from the general election ballot papers and so this will delay the general election count by a couple of hours. 

May 7th Date of UK General Election

There are no local elections in Scotland, Wales and London and so these results will come through earlier but will probably not be typical of the country as a whole.

In the 1960s and 1970s most rural areas and, curiously, Westminster and Kensington, did not count until the next day and so Labour always had a good lead overnight which changed as the last third of seats came in. 

The Government has now pushed all local authorities to count overnight and only Northumberland, Warwickshire, with two of their constituencies, and Cornwall with St Ives and the need to get the votes in from the Scilly Isles, have held out and will count in the morning. 

This means we will know pretty much the exact result by about 6.30 am on Friday with only the Conservative/Labour marginal of Warwick and Leamington and the two Lib Dem seats of St Ives and Berwick-upon-Tweed, which the Conservatives hope to gain, left to declare.

Adding in 2015 Postal Votes

About 20% or more of voters would have voted before May 7th now that people can ask for a postal vote without having to give medical reasons as to why they cannot get to the polling station. The electoral process is controlled by electoral returning officers for each local authority so some have several constituencies to deal with.  

Local authorities will start opening the postal votes to ensure that they have been filled in properly. Party representatives can be present at the opening and this might have given them some idea as to how things were going, though the older people who make up the bulk of the postal voters are more Conservative and UKIP inclined than the rest of the electorate.

From 10:00pm: Polls Close, Exit Polls and Speculation Begins

After polls have closed exit polls will tell us a lot. They has been very accurate in the last two general elections though it may be more difficult to interpret this time, as Professor Curtis who is organising one has made clear, with the complexities of the multi-party system we now have.  

10 O'Clock Polling ClosesThe difference between Labour and the Conservatives is the critical figure. 

The Conservatives were 7.1% ahead of Labour on the day in 2010 and still didn’t win a majority. In 1959 the Conservative lead over Labour was 5.6% and they won a majority of over 100. 

The electoral system is working differently now for various reasons. Northern Ireland Unionists no longer vote with the Conservatives, the Conservative have a substantial vote in many seats which they still lose to the Lib Dems, their vote in Scotland only gives them one MP and Labour seats have a slightly lower electorate and lower turnout. 

If the Conservative have a lead of less than 8% in the exit poll it seems that they cannot form a majority government.

There are a couple of complicating factors to the Labour/Conservative difference in the exit poll.

  • The first is if the swing to the Conservative in marginal seats is more than the average and so their national lead can be less but they will still gain seats. It has to be said that there is no indication of this in the polls.  The other factor is the UKIP vote.  It may be that UKIP gain plenty of votes from the Conservatives in their safe seats without winning any so then the Conservative national vote will be lower without any significant effect on the number of seats that they win.  
  • Having said that, if the Conservative and Labour overall votes are close then the Conservatives will not have a majority and the most likely outcome is a Labour Government of some sort.  
  • The Lib Dem vote in the exit poll will not mean much. It will be very low but the Ashcroft constituency polls have shown a great variation in whether individual Lib Dem MPs can hang on against Conservative challengers and so we will have to wait for actual results to know about this
  • If the UKIP vote is around 12-13% they will probably only win Clacton, whereas if it is up at 18-19% they may hold Rochester and Strood and make some breakthroughs, including Farage in Thanet South, though it is difficult to be sure about a number of individual constituencies where they are challenging, some of which have not seen a close fight for many years.
  • If the Greens are at 5% then they may only win in Brighton Pavilion but if they are up at 8%, Norwich South  may be an outside chance for them and they will be affecting the Labour vote in some constituencies such as the cathedral cities and university towns.

After the exit poll, nothing much will happen for an hour or so except for maybe a few rumours from the different camps, which may or may not mean anything. Turnout figures may start to become available.  A higher turnout is generally felt to favour Labour though some of the UKIP vote is from people who have not voted for some time and so they may also benefit from a high turnout. 

From 10:00pm: Sealed Ballot Boxes Transferred, Counting Starts

From 10pm the sealed ballot boxes will be taken from the polling stations to the counting hall. 

The staff will separate out the local election ballots (and sometimes town and parish council ballots) where these are taking place on the same day as the general election and will start the process of verification. 

The ballot papers are tipped out onto tables and counted, not by party, but to make sure that the number of voters ticked off at each polling station is the same as the number of ballot papers.  

Mostly this goes smoothly but not always and checks have to be carried out until the numbers tally. Occasionally a whole ballot box has been left in a corner unnoticed. Each candidate can appoint a number of party workers to observe the process and those with an experience in observing the constituency may get some idea as to how things are going as the votes are verified.

The ballot papers are then returned to the tables to be counted by party. In most constituencies they are added together in bundles of 500 and taken to a separate table so that it becomes easy to see how things are going, though it may be that areas favourable to one party get counted first and then the other party makes a spurt as their better areas get counted.  

Figures for each polling station are not produced unlike in the US where each precinct is counted separately. When the Liberals passed the legislation for the secret ballot in the 19th century they ensured that figures were not produced for separate villages so that Conservative landlords could not carry out reprisals on their tenants who voted Liberal and so we still only get constituency wide results. 

No one watching the count, including the media, is meant to tell anyone outside how the count is going. This has broken down in the age of social media and mobile phones and even reporters are saying on air what the indications are and, in any case, the rules are really about not disclosing how a particular voter has voted rather than the overall situation. Ballot papers are numbered and in the 1950s MI5 used to ask Returning Officers to give them details as to who had voted Communist.  We don’t know how many complied.

Any Recounts?

When the count is finished it is possible for candidates to ask for a recount, though it is up to the Returning Officer to decide whether to grant the request. 

If the difference is a couple of hundred then it may just be a quick check of the bundles to make sure that a group of votes of one party didn’t accidently end up in the bundle of another party. If the majority get to about 50 or less that there is likely to be a full recount and all the papers go back to the tables to be completely recounted. 

The smallest majority in a parliamentary election in the last 100 years is 2 and if it gets this close the recount may show a different figure from the first count and there has to be another recount. If top two candidates are exactly equal then they draw lots to become the MP (this does happen in local elections occasionally). Candidates have to pay a £500 deposit which is returned if they get 12.5% of the vote and so a recount may happen to check this as well.

Individual Constituency Declarations

The Press Association have done a timeline of when individual constituencies will declare based on an estimate by Returning Officers and what happened in 2010. This is only a guide and all the problems above can delay a result by a couple of hours. 

The first few results are dominated by County Durham and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland because there are no local elections in these areas but among the early results NUNEATON stands out as a critical Conservative held marginal which may well give a good idea how the two main parties are faring.  

The analysis here depends heavily on the national polls and also on the constituency polls that Lord Ashcroft has commissioned. Although individual polls may be out due to sample error, the overall pattern of constituency polls is very much in line with the national polls. They also give information on Lib Dem  and UKIP support in individual constituencies that the national polls cannot reveal. The UK Polling Report website has a blog which provides local knowledge, some reliable and some not, on each constituency.

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