I’m a soft-hearted small ‘l’ liberal living in the age of austerity but even I, even now, wouldn’t say that the Conservatives are the cruellest people in politics. It’s us: the sadistic British electorate. I saw what we did. I was the at the count.
Kettering Conference Centre was the venue for the reckoning. Some 200 would be county councillors were assembled to find out what the next four years of their lives would be like, which of them would successfully be seated when the great game of musical chairs played out and the counting finally stopped.
They had been on doorsteps for weeks, debating, persuading and pleading for the right to take on the problems of the community.
They know that we will blame them for everything because they will be The Council. They know that every hiccup in the delivery of services will be greeted with nothing but disdainful grumbles about the public sector. They know that when things really go wrong their heads will really be above the parapet. But they want this so-called honour and it is us who must give it to them.
It had just begun when I signed in – everyone in the election hall was registered and their reason for being there recorded. I was there to witness some good old fashioned hand-counted democracy in action, just like I used to when I was a junior reporter on one of those local newspapers you used to hear about.
A barrier surrounded tables organised into different areas of the county. The party observers were already prowling sternly, scrutinising the ballots fluttering through fingers – a giant human machine harvesting votes at one end and producing what kind of brew at the other? Light or bitter?
The recipe called for spoiled votes to be weeded out. Most seats had less than ten rejected ballots. Most were won by candidates who polled over a thousand votes, some polled over two thousand but not many. Some managed to win their seats with votes numbering in the hundreds.
Around a third of the people entitled to vote had exercised their right to do so but it doesn’t take many people to get you on the political ladder. A decent away crowd at the Cobblers would be enough support to get you a council seat.
The Labour group leader John McGhee, a Scotsman so tall he never has to be anything but charming, considered the turn out with a grimace like he was tasting the only affordable wine on the menu.
“Hmm, about average…”
McGhee announced at the count that he was stepping down as leader to ‘give someone else a go’. He said the results had nothing to do with it. Labour in fact, had gained a seat.
Politicians must lie awake at night wondering about the two thirds who don’t turn up on polling day. Who are they? They hand over so much money in tax and express no opinion about how it should be spent or who should be spending it. How different would things be if they did cast their votes?
Perhaps it is inviting madness to speculate on the nightmares of politicians. One moment you are striding about the election hall, raising the spirits of the people wearing your rosettes, trying to think of something leaderly to say to people who only want to hear one thing – that the results have gone their way.
The next moment you are hearing your own numbers being read out and the thing you have been trying to reassure everyone else about is happening to you. Your opponent has been elected. You are over, for the time being at least.
The second Northamptonshire leader unhorsed at these elections was Brendan Glynane from the Lib Dems. Labour’s Julie Davenport took his scalp in Delapre & Rushmere.
Shocked glances were exchanged in the press area. Glynane, another tall one, unsurprisingly didn’t know what to do with himself. He must have wanted to jump straight on a plane but how would your remaining candidates feel seeing you quit the field of battle before their results were in? To his credit he stayed visible and supportive for as long as possible.
When he finally quit the hall, ghosting past us, he suddenly stuck out his arm and shook the hand of the person standing next to me and said “thanks”.
When Glynane had gone I asked if he knew him.
“No,” my companion replied with a bemused shrug.
Sarah Uldall lost her seat too. They were both decent, hard working, councillors. You couldn’t really ask them to do the real job of representing their areas any better. People debate the electoral toxicity of Jeremy Corbyn but Tim Farron has not been discussed in the same terms.
Meanwhile the tide of Conservative votes was rising. UKIP submerged. Only two Lib-Dems survived. Labour won battles to take 12 seats but lost the war by a considerable degree. The Tories had 43 councillors by the end of the day.
The Tory leader Cllr Heather Smith was magnaminous in victory and assured the hall from the podium the Tories were in a great position to ‘go for it’.
In the public areas commiserations were exhchanged across the party divide. Councillors don’t argue like cats and dogs off camera. They understand they are all on board this strange roller coaster together.
The winners are whisked away to sign things and receive welcome packs and the rest of us, who have been saying for over an hour we are just about to go, are finally just about to go.
It is not until the drama releases its grip that you realise it has gripped you. The 57 moments of triumph and disaster playing out in front of you. Anxiety. Celebration. Wistful defeat. No matter how much you disagree with them politicians are singular people who walk a tightrope between glory and humiliation in a fearless way.
We expect ridiculous and contradictory things from them: sincerely held beliefs but sexy new ideas every four years; responsibility for our problems without taxing our successes; to lead us but be the same as us; to get things done but not to do them to us…
But at the end of the day we are the electorate and in the natural order of things, the cruel truth is, they are our prey.