Coffee & chocolates: covering the general election as a politics academic

Election nights are tiring events for politicians and broadcasters, and for politics academics too.

The requests start coming in a couple of weeks before polling day. I’ve commented on the previous two general elections on BBC Radio Lincolnshire, but the first request comes from Estuary TV in Grimsby, a local TV station broadcasting to Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire. They initially want to run the programme through the night but to my relief push this back to 6 – 8am on the morning after the election. Siren FM, a community radio station based at the University of Lincoln are running a programme through the night and I agree to do the first couple of hours from 10 until midnight. I suspect, wrongly as it transpires, that there will be little to report. Finally, BBC Radio Lincolnshire ask if I can sit in on their programme from 10 until midday on Friday morning.

One of the local ITV news programmes later asks if I can help with their blog through election night and appear on their TV news programmes on Friday afternoon. They offer to send a car and put me up in a hotel in Leeds. I tell them I can do Friday afternoon, but have other commitments over election night, and they manage to find someone else who can cover both. I suspect the university press office would prefer me to do the TV work but I’m reluctant to let down those to whom I’ve made commitments. Moreover, I quite like the idea of getting a perspective on the election from two marginal seats, Grimsby and Lincoln, and I live between them so I might get to spend at least part of the night at home. Estuary TV have also said they’re putting me on a panel with the outgoing Labour MP, Austin Mitchell. If UKIP take his seat, and they very well might, I’m keen to know what he thinks.

I’ve done a fair amount of media work before, mainly local press and radio. I’ve covered elections, political resignations and voting in the Eurovision song contest. The role of the politics academic in these circumstances is either to offer a quick, and not too involved, comment on recent events, or to sit in the studio and answer questions on a developing situation. In both cases it is important to be able to put events in context, to offer perspective and detail (although not too much) rather than just comment. This does involve some preparation. For most of the last week I’ve camped on Twitter and read the numerous excellent political blogs. In anticipation of another hung parliament I’ve read extensively about the procedures for the formation of coalition governments and the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. I type up some notes, I don’t generally need these, but I know that without any sleep I might easily forget the size of Ed Balls majority.

I’ve been following the local seats pretty closely anyway but I draw up a list of key seats to watch, prominent MPs who may lose their seats and key marginals which might indicate the fate of the main parties. There are also a number of seats with particular interest, a number of our students are standing in the local elections and one of last year’s politics and international relations graduates, Andrea Jenkyns, is standing for the Conservatives against Ed Balls in Morley and Outwood. The chances of her unseating Balls are slim, and I’ve told her so. Indeed, we have a little wager, if she wins she’s promised to invite me for dinner at the House of Commons, but I can pay, so I’m keen to see how she gets on.

I’m already yawning as I walk across the railway bridge to the Siren FM studio, it’s not a good sign. The election programme goes on air at 10pm just as the results of the exit poll come in. The poll wakes me up immediately, if it’s accurate then all the preceding polls and forecasts are wrong and it’s unlikely that Cameron will need to form a coalition. It fundamentally changes the evening and I tweet that I’m quietly tearing up my notes in the Siren FM studio. The poll sets the tone for the rest of the show, which is fortunate, as aside from explaining Sunderland South’s obsession with being the first constituency to declare, there is usually little else to report in the first two hours after the polls close on election night. For a small community radion station Siren FM have put on an impressive programme with reporters stationed at the counts in Lincoln, Boston & Skegness and Louth & Horncastle. I’m also asked to contribute to the Lincoln School of Journalism’s live TV coverage of the election.

Before I head home I call in at the Students’ Union where some of my colleagues and our students are watching the results programmes on the TV. Some, although by no means all, are already looking a little deflated. Regrettably I can’t join them for the beer I so desperately want, as I’m driving home and then onto Grimsby later, but I do manage to track down some more coffee.

The dog and the cat look somewhat confused when I arrive home a short while later, but seem grateful for the company as I try to catch up with events on the TV. I watch Labour’s Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy and a succession of Liberal Democrats lose their seats from the comfort of my own sofa.

I arrive at the studios of Estuary TV at around 5.30am. I’m on a panel with the retiring Labour MP for Grimsby, Austin Mitchell, the Conservative Peer and fellow politics academic, Lord Norton of Louth, and the business editor of the Grimsby Evening Telegraph. At one point a message comes in from one of the viewers that we’re just a bunch of middle-aged white men talking about politics, which is absolutely right, and for some on the panel something of a compliment. I haven’t done much TV work before. I’m conscious that I’m wearing jeans, they’re black and reasonably smart, but everyone else is wearing a suit. I had assumed that we would be sitting behind a desk, but it’s breakfast TV and we are, of course, sitting on sofas. I tuck my shirt in.

The two-hour show goes remarkably quickly. Austin Mitchell is, as always, good value and far from retiring. Philip Norton is on hand to explain the implications of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, as I knew he would. We agree that the most significant thing about the election, particularly in the Lincolnshire/Humberside area is that there has been very little change. UKIP failed to take target seats Grimsby and Boston & Skegness. The Conservatives have hung onto all of their seats in the region, despite stiff challenges from Labour in Cleethorpes and Lincoln.

I hear about Ed Balls’ defeat sitting in the car park at Grimsby. This is the election’s Portillo moment, people will be talking about where they were when they heard about the Shadow Chancellor’s defeat, but for me I know I’ll remember where I was when I heard that Andrea Jenkyns had been elected.

At 9am I am eating breakfast in Macdonald’s in Lincoln. I tweet that I am on my way to my third media engagement and some kind individual at BBC Radio Lincolnshire replies that they’ll put the coffee on. The kindness continues when I arrive, they give me coffee and chocolates, and arrange Wifi so that I can continue following events on my IPad. In the studio Melvyn Prior refers to me as his ‘election buddy’, which is nice.

Nevertheless, I am clearly tired and despite an hour of Radio 4 in the car between Grimsby and Lincoln, I worry that I’m not up to speed. I’m supposed to be talking about the results of the local elections which also took place yesterday but I haven’t had time to catch up with the results and several are not yet in anyway. When the results for Boston Borough Council come in and show that the Conservatives and UKIP are tied on 13 seats, I point out that this is not very surprising and UKIP might have been expected to do better. During the next record, the producer points out that UKIP previously held no seats on the council. I’m on for two hours so there is plenty of time to clarify my comments by noting that UKIP had won almost all of the seats in Boston in the county council elections in 2013 and had just run the Conservatives a close second in the parliamentary election in the constituency, but it is a reminder that I need to think before I speak.

The rest of the show goes well. The coffee flows, listeners call in with their take on last night’s results and then a succession of resignations by Farage, Clegg and then Miliband ensure that we don’t just spend the show discussing the results. I caution that this is not the first time that Farage has stood down as leader of UKIP and we should not be surprised if we see him back again.

I arrive home at around 2pm. I’ve spent a large part of the last the last 16 hours talking about polls and forecasts, marginal seats and the voting system, but it is only when I get home that I’m able to think about what the election means to me personally. My wife has left a note saying how she feels betrayed by her fellow countrymen and suggesting we move to France for the next five years. My emotions are mixed. I’m deeply disappointed and more than a little confused by the result. I’m also irritated that I will need to rewrite almost all of my first year politics lectures. But I’m also proud that so many of our students have been involved in the election, as candidates and activists, on behalf a range of parties. For most, this has been their ‘first’ general election campaign and I know that some of them will be bitterly disappointed, while others will be euphoric and perhaps a little relieved.

I think I owe Andrea Jenkyns dinner.

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