Agent’s Training 7 – Predicting the Turnout for journalists

Election Counting

Predicting the turnout of an election can impress journalists and bamboozle the opposition!

There are many stories about counts, and how people have won at the count, when all seemed lost at the close of poll.

Many people will tell you that they can predict the result and often you can these days with high quality sampling and a lap top computer.

But, one of the things that people cannot predict is the turnout, especially if you have not been telling properly.  However, one of the first things journalists will always ask you, especially a young TV journalist like Laura Tevelyan of the BBC, is ‘what’s the turnout?’

It might seem a reasonable question, and might even fill a minute or two of the time they have to try and fill on a by-election special, or BBC News Channel.

She asked me this question twice, once at the Wigan by-election and then a year later at the Preston by-election.

On both occasions I stroked my chin sagely and gave a very specific answer. In Wigan, after some thought I said, ‘25.2% I reckon,’ it was 25%. In Preston, Laura swept up to me saying to her crew, ‘this is the man to ask, he knows.’ After much thought I said I reckoned the turnout was ‘about 29%, but it might be a bit higher if the suburbs turned out.’ It was about 30%!

So, how is this trick achieved if you have not been telling on polling stations? Well, to be fair it is more difficult these days because of the variability of postal voting, but nearly always, as a rule of thumb turnout would double between 6pm and the close of poll, so if you asked a few tellers to ask their polling officers, in the polling stations, what the turnout was at about 6pm, you could roughly guess what it would be by the close of poll.

With this knowledge you could astound the media and baffle the opposition, who would scoff at you apparent accuracy and then be red faced at the revelation that you were in fact right.


Agent’s Training 6 – The emergency kit to get through a by-election!

Scotch Whisky

The book on how to deal with difficult people was an obvious addition to my top drawer at the by-election, but why was the whisky bottle plastic?!

At the start of the Wigan by-election a lot of fellow Liberal Democrat campaigners were feeling very sorry for me, as I had been appointed as agent.

Polling day was planned for the same day as Charles Kennedy’s maiden speech as leader of the Liberal Democrats, at the party conference, due to Paddy Ashdown’s retirement.

So, our team was small but enthusiastic.

So concerned were we at the lack of volunteers crossing the threshold of our suite of offices at the HQ that we decided to take a lot of the stuffing and stamping work to Harrogate, where the conference was, to get the work done.

Avid readers will have noticed I mentioned that helicopters have a boot in the back and this was, on one occasion, how the target letters made it back to Wigan.

But, as this job needed running in Harrogate Hilary Stephenson took on the role of drumming up, and organising, volunteers in Harrogate whilst I remained, for the most part, in Wigan.

Knowing that my skills at dealing with unruly staff, anxious candidates and quixotic volunteers can at times become strained Hilary bought me an emergency kit for dealing with crises, in her absence.

On the eve of her departure for Harrogate I was presented with three items: 

  • A large container of shower gel
  • A half bottle of scotch whisky (plastic)
  • A book on how to deal with difficult people

The shower gel was primarily for activists who were keen but not necessarily house trained.  The book was obvious in its purpose as was the whisky. ‘But,’ I asked Hilary, ‘why the plastic bottle?’

She replied sagely, ‘well if you feel the need to throw something at people you won’t waste the whisky in the process! It will bounce!’

Wise words.

(The book, but not the whisky, got placed into the box of tricks for the next by-election agent, I wonder what happened to it?!)

The Candidate’s Aide’s Briefing – Lesson 2 – Helicopters


When Paddy Ashdown tells you to 'close all orifices' in a moving vehicle you take notice!

‘Only leaders travel in helicopters,’ is a maxim that makes helicopters and leaders special.

The phrase, coined by Jim Hancock, former political editor of BBC North West, sums up three tales of when I joined the leader in his campaign helicopter.

Charles Kennedy is not a big fan of helicopters, which is a shame, because personally I think they are the biggest boys toys that have been invented.

I did fly with Charles from Harrogate to Westmorland but with the exception of the stomach churning flight over the ups and downs of the Cumbrian fells the trip to see Tim Farron, now the local MP, was relatively uneventful.

Paddy Ashdown and helicopters is a different matter.

European Elections 1999 – sharing the burden

When Paddy announced his retirement this was to be his last national election campaign for the party and as such his journey to the North West became something of a grand tour, stopping in Chester, (with the Eddibsury by-election in the offing), Southport, Kendal, Oldham and Stockport.

The tour landed in Chester, and having done a walkabout of one of Britain’s most beautiful cities, we returned to the helipad: a field I rural Cheshire.

A large crowd of well-wishers, and members, had appeared to give Paddy a big send off. Hilary Stephenson was the agent for the election and was on site to make sure all went to plan. Several people were questioning why I, and not Paddy, was sitting in the front seat.

An elderly member leant across saying, ‘weight distribution.’ We ascended, just!

Wigan By-Election, September 1999 – ‘close all orifices’

On the eve of Paddy’s retirement in 1999, and the last day of the party conference in Harrogate, Paddy agreed to come and support our candidate in the Wigan by-election.

On this occasion Paddy was in the front, I had learnt my lesson.

Flying across the Pennines, from Harrogate to a high school in Wigan, with a former Royal Marine and SBS operative was an education, the conversation, over the intercom, went something like this:

Ashdown: ‘Pilot, what’s that at 10 o’clock?’

Pilot: ‘That’s Bury Sir.’

Ashdown: ‘And what’s that at 2 o’clock’

Pilot: ‘That’s Bolton Sir.’

Ashdown: ‘Marvellous! Of course, I’ve always loved helicopters, by far the best form of transport. When I was a marine we had to do parachute jumps. The worst thing I have ever had to do.’

Pilot: ‘I see Sir.’

Ashdown: ‘In fact before every jump I used to tell my men, “close all orifices”.’

Me: ‘Chapter 3 of the Ashdown Memoirs – ‘Close all Orifices’

Ashdown: ‘Can you hear us in the back?’

(And for those that don’t know much about helicopters – they have a boot, which you can transport target letters back from conference in.)