Friday, 7 May 2010

Sneaky media beat the count

THE Media turned out in force to witness the remarkable feat by the Liberal Democrats when they not only held on to the Westmorland and Lonsdale seat on a disappointing night for the party but actually increased their majority significantly.
For those that missed it the sitting MP Tim Farron (Lib/Dem) polled 30,896 (60 per cent of the vote); John Mander (UKIP) – 801 (1.5%); Gareth McKeever (Conservative) - 18,632 (36%); Jonathan Todd (Labour) - 1,158 (2%). With 82 spoils there was a 77% turn-out overall.
Mr Farron narrowly gained the seat in 2005, with 22,569 votes and a majority of 267 (0.5%), over the then Conservative Education spokesman Tim Collins. It had previously been a Conservative seat for almost 100 years.
In this election, the Conservatives put the seat at 14 on its list of those they would have to win if they were to have a chance of regaining power.
Mr Collins had resigned after his defeat and after a false start with another prospective candidate, who also resigned, the Tories finally found former financier Gareth McKeever, an Ulsterman from a farming family.
He was seen by some as a bit of a Tim Farron clone. He is a charming, sincere and hard-working man. The local Tory party shook off its lethargy and got behind him with a vigorous and noticeable campaign. The national big guns arrived for support.
But it was swiftly clear to the party members who witnessed the count at Lakes Leisure Centre that it was going to be Mr Farron’s day.
The constituency was one of those with a huge rural area for whom the geography and the burden of sorting postal votes was too great to manage the usual Thursday overnight count. Instead the army of counters gathered at a civilised 9.30 a.m.
It took three hours to validate that the votes matched the numbers recorded at each polling station.
During this process the army of party faithful who witness procedures can tell which party is doing well.
The count proper had hardly started when Liberal Democrats started clapping each other on the back and the Conservatives descended into doom and gloom. Mr McKeever, who had given up his job in the city and moved home to Kendal to fight the seat, seemed close to tears.
His bid to regain the seat had been hit when computer and paper records of membership, voting intentions and leaflets were destroyed in an intense blaze that ripped through the offices and roof of Kendal Conservative Club on February 19 this year.
Mr McKeever described the fire as devastating, and the election campaign headquarters had to be moved to an edge-of-town business park. Two men were arrested by detectives investigating the fire and they are due to respond to police bail later this month. A political motive is not suspected.
But there was no attempt to blame the fire for Mr McKeever’s apparently appalling performance. His party colleagues said they just couldn’t break through the tremendous personal following Mr Farron had built up during his five years as MP.
When acting returning officer, Debbie Storr, finally put the other three parties out of their misery, Mr Farron said “blimey” and then after the usual platitudes warned his party supporters that he would work as hard to protect his majority of 12,000 as he had with just more than 200.
This was all played out in front of BBC radio and television, with Nick Higham who usually reports on media and cultural affairs in London, independent radio and local, regional and national print journalists.
It was fascinating to see how busy the reporters were on twitter, blogs and web-site updates, even when there was nothing to say. See Another media guest was well-known Lakes-based cartoonist, Colin Shelbourn, who twittered away. See and http://radiocartoonist.blogspot.
But the most remarkable media moment was seeing the BBC going apoplectic when Ms Storr refused to give them the result when it was known five minutes before the announcement.
Mr Higham cried it was the only constituency in the country where this was the rule. When asked why it mattered he said that it was to help provide instant graphics for the viewers.
Anyway Ms Storr relented and the BBC got their way. A few other sneaky journalists looked over shoulders at the slip of paper that gave the information, which is why some media outlets actually had the results before the people at the count.
Such is the power of the media in a modern democracy.

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