The photo (above) is of the Radio 4 and 5 election night studio, at some point in the early hours of Friday morning, as the local election results trickled in. If you stare at it really hard, you can just about see the top of my bald head sticking out above the computer screen at the back. I’m not quite sure what I was thinking at the time, but it was probably something like: I wish the London results would hurry up. Or: I need another coffee.
I’ve been doing election night coverage for Radio 4 (and occasionally also Radio 5) for about a decade now – ever since the late Gareth Butler took me to lunch to check that I wasn’t the sort of person who would soil themselves with fright live on air. Each time, I think: I should write something about this, and each time I never quite get around to it, usually because after you come off air after an all-nighter sleep somehow seems a more important priority.
But this year, apparently, I was part of a BBC conspiracy to promote Nigel Farage and UKIP. It seems they’d had a disastrous night, but the BBC line – fixed in rehearsals, so I’ve been told – was to big them up, whatever the results actually were. There were even similar mutterings after Sunday night’s European elections. Sure, UKIP topped the Euros poll – the first time any political party other than Labour or the Conservatives had managed that in a national election for a century – but that aside they’d really not done very well, so why was the BBC talking about them so much?
The BBC can, and will, defend itself, as can the assorted other academics involved in their coverage. (In addition to those you see on screen, the BBC coverage is massively dependent on behind the scenes work of John Curtice, Rob Ford, Steve Fisher, and others, all of whom never really get the credit they deserve). Being locked away in a radio studio means I didn’t see any of the TV coverage, so it may be that they all collectively went crazy. But somehow I doubt it.
The fact is there is no BBC line. No one tells you what to say. The idea is preposterous, and just shows how little some people know about how these things work. Jim Naughtie has occasionally indicated that he’d like me to shut up, or that I need to hurry up (ironic the last one, I always think, coming from him), but never what to say. If I got things wrong, then it’s my fault.
And, of course, you do get things wrong. In total, across both nights, we did ten hours of broadcasting – five on the Thursday for the locals, and five on the Sunday for the Euros – and in ten hours of live broadcasting, you cock up occasionally. When you do, you should fess up. One of the best bits about doing election night broadcasting, though, is that whilst your audience is small it is very informed – often consisting of activists at, or on their way home from, counts – and when you get it wrong they let you know sharpish, especially these days, via social media. It’s like the very best peer review, except it doesn’t take three months and consist largely of people telling you that you’re not quoting their books enough.
Election nights usually come in distinct phases. Early on, you often have very little hard data to discuss – which is why Sunderland, which often declares early, gets over-analysed to such an unhelpful extent. Then the flood gates open, and your task is to avoid drowning under a flood of results. That’s then followed by a post-coital period, time for a fag and a reflective chat, full of big picture stuff (and what journalists call up-sums for some reason).
Neither of last week’s programmes were like that. The early hours of Friday morning saw a burst of early results, in many of which UKIP did exceptionally well, followed by a long wait for results from London, where declarations were in many cases much later than originally predicted. The reason I suspect the above picture is of me willing the London results to come in was because I spent much of the night doing exactly that. It was pretty obvious as soon as they started to emerge that London had behaved differently to most of the seats that had already declared. But the earliest London results were from Wandsworth, and you don’t have to be an expert in London politics to know that you can’t necessarily extrapolate from Wandsworth to the rest of the city. (In Northcote ward, in Wandsworth, UKIP polled just 1.9%. Nigel Farage’s appeal does not extend to Nappy Valley). And by the time we came off air on Friday morning, at 5am, there were still hardly any London results to analyse.
Sunday, by contrast, was almost constant results from the start, as local authorities released their data – but with London again late, as a result of the farce in Tower Hamlets. London helpfully declared just minutes after we came off air at 3am. In both cases, this made it harder than normal to get the big picture right, but I think we did pretty well in the circumstances.
Had the London results come in earlier, then I suspect the way the story was reported on the Friday might have been a bit different – in that Labour were doing better than it initially appeared, UKIP less well – but I doubt very much that the success of UKIP would have seemed all that much less impressive. Even now, with days to reflect on the results, many of the criticisms still seem weird: yes, UKIP’s projected national share in the locals was lower than they achieved in 2013, but UKIP was fighting on a much broader front this year, and moreover they’ve now managed to do well for two years running; and yes, the percentage of the electorate voting UKIP was small in both the Euros and the locals, once you take into account the low turnout, but that’s true of all of these elections. It’s only a valid criticism from people who have never taken account of the result of either election, ever.
When I did eventually get some sleep on Monday morning, one of my dreams consisted of me taking part in the final stages of a competition to compose a theme tune for the House of Lords, in which the main instrument was my daughter’s rattle. This is not evidence of a relaxed mind and body. But it’s worth it every year.
Philip Cowley is Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham.
This originally appeared on http://www.psa.ac.uk/insight-plus/blog/nigel-farage-my-part-his-rise