British Election Nights, Despair, and Hope: A Personal History

British election nights have followed a certain pattern for decades. The polling stations close at 10 p.m. The ballot boxes are delivered to municipal sports halls across the country, where local government employees count the votes through the night, before an official announces the result in front of the exhausted candidates. Many people interested in the outcome of the election stay up to watch the coverage on either BBC or ITV.

At the exact moment the polling stations close, broadcasting organizations announce the result of their exit polls—a first indication of whether your political hopes might be fulfilled or trashed. Some early results come in before midnight, signifying more or less nothing, and then, after about 1 a.m., the results come quicker, and the television coverage goes from tediously speculative to amusingly chaotic. By 2:30 or so, it starts to become clear how the final results will look, and by 7 a.m., nearly all the results are in. The coverage is entirely from within the bubble of mainstream journalism and politics. The extent of voter turnout is hardly mentioned, and working-class voices are almost entirely unheard.

For those on the political Left in the UK, most election nights have been utterly miserable affairs. I know mine have. Here’s a personal history of British election nights, up to and including 8-9 June 2017.

1979: Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives defeated Labour, led by Prime Minister James Callaghan. I was a convinced teenage Labour supporter, drawn to the party’s left faction led by Tony Benn. Aged sixteen, with my mum and dad long in bed, I watched the TV coverage on my own even though I had a big exam the next day. Thatcher’s victory was to set the tone for the next decades of my political life–a series of horrible defeats for the Left. Despair factor: 6 out of 10. (I was too young to know better.)

1983: The Labour Party, led by Michael Foot, ran on a radical left platform of nationalization, public investment, nuclear disarmament, and withdrawal from the forerunner of the European Union. Labour got its lowest share of votes in the modern political era (28 percent), and Thatcher swept triumphantly to a huge parliamentary majority. I was a student at Oxford, and an anarchist friend and I watched the coverage on acid. The idea, I think, was that this would make even more profoundly apparent the absurdity of the political system. Everyone looked incredibly ugly and pompous, and earpieces seemed constantly to be falling out. Despair factor during coverage: 2 out of 10. Next day: 8 out of 10.

1987: Thatcher’s Conservatives defeated Labour, now led by Neil Kinnock, who was “modernizing” the party by moving it to the right. Kinnock had made progress in opinion polls, and some of us dared to hope he might narrow Thatcher’s majority. But Labour barely improved on their previous results, and the widely loathed Thatcher got just as big a proportion of the popular vote as in 1983 (forty-two percent). I was living in Manchester but had a teaching job nearby in the working-class Lancashire town where I grew up, Accrington, and I knocked on doors for Labour. The town had been represented by a Labour Member of Parliament since the Second World War, but a local Conservative, Ken Hargreaves, had won the seat by twenty-two votes in the Thatcher landslide of 1983. We were absolutely sure that, even if they didn’t win the General Election, Labour would take back Accrington. On the doorsteps, people expressed hatred of the Tories (the popular name for Conservatives)—but Ken Hargreaves increased his majority to more than 2000. Watching the coverage at my mate Heysy’s, I felt a degree of political despair beyond any I’ve known before or since. Full of beer, I walked back towards my parents’ house with my then-Trotskyist mate Steve. Across the still summer dawn, we could hear Conservatives celebrating at the Town Hall, where the local count had taken place. Despair factor: 11 out of 10.

1992: Kinnock led Labour into a second general election and was expected to beat John Major’s Conservatives, who had haplessly presided over an economic recession. Labour lost, not by a landslide, but by more than any Labour supporter had feared, and people genuinely started to wonder whether Labour could ever win a general election again. I was doing my masters degree at Northwestern University, and my friends Chad and Betty invited me and others to their Chicago flat, where we listened to the coverage on the BBC World Service, as the results were reported in Britain, six hours ahead. My girlfriend Helen was visiting from Britain, and she and I choked back our tears of anger and frustration. Chad, an American leftist to his very core, just didn’t get why we were so sickened. I think he saw Labour as a version of the Democrats—and as Democrats were hardly likely to make a difference to social justice, surely Labour wouldn’t either? And I started to wonder whether he might be right. Despair factor: 10 out of 10.

1997: After Labour’s defeat of 1992, Labour moved still further to the right, especially, from 1994 onwards, under Tony Blair. By now, I was back at Oxford. I’d left the Labour Party and was voting Green in local elections as well as in the 1997 Election. (I never once voted for Blair’s Labour Party.) Blair was up against John Major’s exhausted Conservatives, and Helen and I watched the coverage at a party at our friends Bill and Cathy’s. We laughed and screamed with joy as despised Tories, one after the other, lost their parliamentary seats and “New Labour” won by a mile. Two people at the party sat quietly, and I somehow resisted the temptation to say to them, “now you know how it fucking well feels.” Despair factor: 2 out of 10. Hope factor: 5 out of 10.

2001: Everyone knew that Blair’s Labour Party would win massively over the struggling Conservatives, led by William Hague. Working-class people had seen through Blair’s New Labour project, and many of them stopped voting. So did many Tories, and voter turnout plunged to a historic low of fifty-nine percent. (It had never been less than 70 percent since the Second World War.) We’d moved to a different Oxford constituency, and I voted tactically for the Liberal Democrats, who were narrowly ahead of the Conservatives there. I went to bed early, partly because we had two kids by then, and partly because I just couldn’t be bothered to watch. Despair factor: 4 out of 10. Hope factor: 3 out of 10.

2005: Blair led Labour to a third successive election victory, this time against the Tory right-winger Michael Howard. But the Left had turned almost completely against Blair by now, after he led Britain into Bush’s catastrophic Gulf War and marketized public services. Labour’s share of the popular vote plummeted to thirty-five percent, against the Tories’ thirty-two percent, but they maintained a big parliamentary majority, because of Britain’s stupid and corrupt “first past the post” electoral system. I voted Lib Dem tactically again and had another early night. Despair factor: 5 out of 10. Hope factor: 1 out of 10.

2010: Gordon Brown had taken over from his former friend and later archrival Tony Blair and was up against posh PR man David Cameron, the man with the smoothest face in political history. Amazingly, even after an economic meltdown and some poor campaigning by Brown, suspicion of the Tories remained strong enough that they couldn’t form a government without entering into coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats (though previously the Lib Dems had for years been to the left of Labour). By now I was an active member of the Green Party in Yorkshire, where we’d moved in 2007. I voted for the Greens in the general election, and on the same day was a Green candidate myself in the local elections. I spent election day in London, and I watched the coverage with an old school-friend at his place in Wapping. Perhaps helped by copious booze and nicotine, I felt pleasure that at least the Conservatives hadn’t won an overall majority. Despair factor: 4 out of 10, rising to 8 out of 10 after sleep. Hope factor: 0 out of 10.

2015: Ed Miliband took over from Brown in 2010, and moved Labour cautiously—very cautiously—just a little to the left. On the back of a major surge in Green Party membership in 2014, I’d helped set up a Green Party branch in the constituency where I live. I attended the count at Keighley Leisure Centre, and as I pulled into the car park at 10 p.m., BBC radio announced the results of its exit poll, suggesting that the Tories would be the biggest party and might even gain an overall majority. It turned out even worse than that: they won by nearly twenty seats. Inside, I spent a terrible night, waiting until 7 a.m. for the local results to be announced, while the Conservatives smirked. The local Conservative MP increased his majority. I drove home exhausted at 8 a.m., listening to jubilant Tories being interviewed on the radio. Labour achieved only 30.5 percent of the vote, barely more than they’d managed in 2010. Despair factor: 9 out of 10. Hope factor: 0 out of 10.

2016: The Brexit vote wasn’t a general election, but it felt a bit like one. I went to bed at 10, fearing a vote to leave. It was still a shock when I woke at 7 a.m. to watch the delirious gurning of UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage and the smirking triumph of faux-buffoon old Etonian populist Boris Johnson. Despair: 10 out 10. Hope: 0 out of 10.

2017: Following Miliband’s defeat in 2015, a veteran left-wing Labour figure, Jeremy Corbyn, ran against three much more mainstream candidates for the Labour leadership and, incredibly, he won by a mile. Corbyn was subject to unremitting skepticism and hostility–from many of his own MPs, from the terrible British press, and even from broadcast media who were supposed to be more objective. Just five weeks before the general election, Labour performed badly in local elections. But then Labour released a manifesto that was full of the kinds of things that practically everyone on the Left in the UK wanted to see. Most of it had featured in the Green Party manifesto of 2015 (though Labour’s manifesto supported the renewal of Trident nuclear missiles), and, like many people, I started to hope that Labour would do well, even though I was campaigning for the Greens. Corbyn’s television appearances were surprisingly assured, while May looked out of touch. The polls started to narrow, and there were reports of panic at Conservative Headquarters. Hope started to appear all over the leftist social media bubbles where I spend too much of my time, usually qualified with statements along the lines of “we’ve dared to hope before, and it always turns to shit.”

When 10 p.m. came, the exit polls suggested that the Conservatives would fail to gain an overall majority. Not that Labour would win—nobody thought that was possible. Theresa May had called the election, which should have taken place in 2020, early. She intended to strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations—and to wipe out the Labour Party, which she and the media saw as fatally weak. So failing to win an overall majority was a massive defeat for May. When the poll was announced, I leapt to my feet, high-fived my son Joe, who’d just voted for the first time, ran at high speed around our living room and then headed to the front door of my house, where I bellowed out into the lovely summer evening, “Yeeeeeeeesssssssssssssssss.” We were all still nervous, but the Tories did indeed fail, and there is a renewed sense of hope on the British Left, of a kind unknown in my lifetime. Of course that hope is fragile, but I know how election despair feels, and I will take the night of 8-9 June over any election night of my lifetime, no contest. Despair factor: 5 out of 10. Hope factor: 6 out of 10. Everything is poised.

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David Hesmondhalgh

David Hesmondhalgh is professor of media, music, and culture in the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds. He is the author (with Kate Oakley, David Lee, and Melissa Nisbett) of Culture, Economy and Politics: The Case of New Labour (2015), Why Music Matters (2013), Creative Labour: Media Work in Three Cultural Industries (Routledge, 2011, co-written with Sarah Baker), and The Cultural Industries (Sage, 4th edition due in 2018). Twitter: @hesmondthing