Christine Tongue: Out for the count

The count took place at the Winter Gardens

Last Thursday Thanet went to the polls. On Friday the votes were counted. I went along to see them counted with my friend Aram who was up for Thanet council and Broadstairs Town Council.

We started with a big morally uplifting breakfast at the Cliftonville community kitchen which uses food surpluses to help relieve poverty. We paid a very cheap price plus a larger donation and went off to the Winter Gardens for the next ten hours.

First hurdle for stick users is a huge flight of stairs. Where’s the lift? I asked hopefully. No lift! And no signs to the outdoor slope I could have used if only I’d known it was there. So started the day by grumbling my way down about fifty steps. And then grumbling some more to the officials running the count.

“It’s a listed building” I was told – as I have many times before as an excuse for really terrible disabled access. And this always puts me in a mood for aggro.

The candidates are allowed to take a companion to the count to help them check everything’s being done properly. So you’re there to watch the counters!

You’ve seen the pictures I’m sure – hundreds of people, mostly women, with little rubber thimbles on their counting finger, flicking through your ballot papers, counting all of them, and then counting the individual votes. They have to decide the ambiguous ones and fish out the spoiled ones – lots of options on spoiling your paper, but unless us counter watchers are reading upside down when your ballot is flicked through, you’re wasting your time. Apparently there was one which said “TRAITORS” but I didn’t actually see it.

The ambiguous ones are looked at by the officials and by anyone else interested to see fairness prevails.

Aram noticed one that had voted too many times, including one vote for him, but being a man of integrity he pointed it out, even though he’d lose a vote! Not sure I’d have done that, so just as well I’m not standing. But I did wonder what most candidates would do….

There are lots of lulls in the process where we’re all sitting around waiting for something to happen. Or trying to sit down as there’s a great lack of places to park yourself where you need to be. It’s like playing musical chairs with no music and no chairs.

That’s when you can wander around chatting to your mates – I had lots there as three of my fellow health service campaigners were candidates. You can also play spot your councillor. Mine was standing next to the table where his votes were due to land.

“Are you my councillor?” I asked. “Are you carrying a weapon?” he quipped. “Only my stick.” I said.

“Nice to find out what you look like,” I said, “after four years. You’ve kept a bit of a low profile!”

Interestingly he agreed with me about saving the stroke unit at QEQM hospital, and worried along with me about what a catastrophe losing A&E would be. I muttered things about his government’s policies and he agreed! It’s amazing how much agreement there is about saving our hospital. Wonder why it’s still under threat…

The other thing to do in a lull is buy a drink. The tea was cold, weak and served by a poor girl who must have been fed up with anxious candidates making a fuss about needing a decent drink.

Badly needs training I thought. I pondered whether I had time to do it. I mean, just using boiling water and enough tea bags would have helped.

But by now exciting things were happening. Results! We had to rush into the next theatre (more steps with no ramp and hand rails attached to the doors so they wobble) where the returning officer calls the winners onto the stage and announces the numbers for each candidate. Lots of hugging and crying might happen here. Both our MPs were lurking around but I didn’t see them hugging or crying. Me and the stick avoided both of them. Neither of them looked very happy.

A lot of people think local elections shouldn’t have anything to do with national politics but they need to know that if our MPs decide to turn up, then it must be politically significant!

By this time things were getting exciting. One candidate mentioned “cattle heat” – the atmosphere of nervous cows and the smell of sweat from people waiting for results – and hiding how distressed they were at the numbers of ballots without a cross against their name!

The results came faster and faster. I was up and down the horrible steps so often my dodgy hip joint gave in and made me sit down, along with a candidate, who also has dodgy joints, wearing sparkly red shoes – channelling Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.

The magic paid off – she was elected.

As the day dragged on, we all started wondering if some kind of electronic system might be better so we could all vote from home or our local library.

But think what we’d miss: all that human contact, all that bonding over shared stress, gathering your politicos in one spot to see how their voters made their choices. It all seems very democratic! Especially as Aram got elected.

So if you get a chance, do go to a count. All human emotion and all your local politicos are there!

But take sandwiches and a flask of decent tea. Oh yes, and a folding chair.