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Covering elections and why I still go back

In Insider, Standard by Andrew BrookesLeave a Comment

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Elections were, for me anyway, always great fun to cover as a journalist. So much so that, despite hanging up my notepad, I still go back for more now.

Last night I was once again ‘out for the count’ at the South Holland District Council elections. These days, I’m officially there to send through results for the Press Association but nights like this are a timely reminder about the joy of covering an election on a local paper and chance to catch up with colleagues and councillors from my past life.

Conservative hold no surprise, but still stories to be had

The result itself – a Conservative hold – was never in doubt. South Holland is one of the parts of the country where it perform strongest. It was, however, the area with the second highest Leave vote in the country and the ‘B’ word did come up a lot on doorsteps, in leaflets and last night. Plenty of candidates were at pains to distance themselves from Westminster and their leader in campaign literature to separate themselves from the potential backlash – and fear of this did cause more nerves than many might realise.

If there was a protest vote it’s likely that it manifested itself largely through turnout – no ward had higher than 33% – although the Tories did end the night four seats down (the council is split between 24 Tories and 13 Independents). Still, that’s a clear majority and a mandate for the ruling group to continue their work.

Yet that’s not to say there are no stories from such a result. Election nights are full of them. That’s what can make them fun to cover.

covering elections

Announcing the result of Spalding St John’s Ward at Springfields Exhibition Centre

Genuine drama

It’s easy to scoff – and this might sound a bit twee – but there’s a genuine human drama that is guaranteed by the fact that people turn up to the count genuinely not knowing what their future holds. There’s always tension, nervousness, relief, tears, often some smugness and always raw elation to be found right across the sports halls and exhibition centres that double up as the front line of democracy on the count night.

Spalding last night was no different. From the disappointing demise of prominent female councillors to Ukip’s struggles in a staunch Leave area, the relative rise of the Greens, the raging ‘relief road’ debate and the new election of a local businessman, there are plenty of human interest nuggets beneath the numbers. These were being duly gobbled up by the teams at the Lincolnshire Free Press and Spalding Guardian (my old stomping ground) and Spalding Voice (set up by former colleagues). I was almost envious of the chance to roll my sleeves up and get to work – but it’s actually quite nice to watch it all unfold without the pressure to get everything down.

These days, the demands of online coverage make life busier when covering elections, but that’s no bad thing. Keeping the website and social channels up to date keeps you awake and it’s satisfying to see the web numbers coming in as people wake up and peep at their phones to see how their candidates got on. Twitter is perfect for newsflash results, Facebook for video reaction or funny moments and the website a place for you to be in depth in a way that the BBC isn’t able to be. Done well and it’s a timely reminder to your readers that you can do them a serious service and show off your output across every platform.

Working relationships with councillors

Election night is also often a timely reminder that our councillors are human beings. After the tension of a campaign, this is your chance to chat more freely about what’s come up on the doorstep and what’s been happening behind the scenes.

It’s very easy to slag off councillors – and there are definitely some who live up to the worst stereotypes – but their role can be a pretty thankless task. Hours of meetings and lots of unsung work on ward matters aren’t exactly richly rewarded financially and most people would certainly deem it isn’t ‘worth it’. One councillor told me he’d walked 58 miles in the last couple of days delivering leaflets to try to secure his re-election and he’s, to put it politely, no spring chicken.

Whether you agree with them or not, it’s vital to be on good terms with councillors. It is possible to be cordial without being too cosy – and it’s a knack you need as a journalist. Most are up for a joke too. Last night, one member of the licensing committee was being congratulated for allowing the 24-hour McDonald’s trading licence by colleague eager to refuel over breakfast when the last recount ended (just before 5am).

Elections are not fair either. Good councillors who work hard, genuinely care about the area and campaign well can easily be kicked out and caught up in the crossfire of a national grievance. People who desperately want to be councillors – and who look like they would be good at it – can struggle to get in because of their rosette. Others who half-heartedly stand, don’t turn up to the count and are in it for the wrong reasons win too. That’s the harsh reality – and the sense of injustice often hangs over a few results.

What journalists can learn from elections

Elections are good learning exercises for journalists too.

Poor turnouts are sadly all-too-common but I also thought they were a bad sign for us and, being honest, a poor reflection on journalism. If people don’t know who their candidates are, what they stand for, what the key issues are or, worse still, that there even is an election on then, on some level, you’ve failed too. Local elections are about debates on the bread and butter stories you write about every week, if people are engaged in that, they’re more likely to be engaged in an election. Our national counterparts often don’t help in this regard by obsessing about the personal squabbles of over-hyped egotists. This year, the national focus on the European elections later this month will no doubt have confused some people.

Covering elections are also a great way for you to sense how issues have sunk in with the general public, which is invaluable insight when you’re news editor. It’s easy to get stuck in a bubble and think everyone is furious about a local issue – and a busy mailbox can kid you into thinking this – but if that doesn’t translate into votes at the ballot box it teaches you not to get too carried away by the people who merely shout the loudest (which isn’t as easy as it sounds).

People will often say they’re not interested in politics but it often doesn’t take too long to unpick that and realise that they’ve just, for some reason, not been engaged on the things they feel passionately about or appreciated the importance of what goes on in their council. In both of those things, journalists and councillors alike have a shared duty – albeit from different ends of the spectrum.

The count is also a place to make new contacts and find out new gossip too and there are always non-election stories up for grabs too.

Even if you’re not quite as much of a geek as me, you have to accept that elections are important to cover as a journalist. Get them right and you can get a lot from them and have some fun too. It’s that formula that keeps me hooked. See you later in the year for General Election perhaps?