We arrived in the UK on 2nd May, 22 parliamentarians and officials from 12 Commonwealth nations, to be a part of the second Election Assessment Mission (EAM) of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK and observe the UK’s electoral process and make recommendations. We started with two days of training in the leafy surroundings of Denham where we got to know each other and spent fruitful hours learning the intricacies of the electoral system in the UK and the nuances of its politics. Though many of us were seasoned parliamentarians and ministers in their own countries we all agreed that we came away having learned something new.
We were divided into 6 teams, each comprised of four observers and two CPA UK officials, and were assigned the constituencies of Birmingham Ladywood, Brighton Pavilion, Exeter, Glasgow East, Watford or Wirral West. The constituencies had been chosen for a reason: each one illustrated a particular character of the UK’s electoral politics. Exeter, for example, was the sole Labour seat in the traditionally Conservative south west of England and Brighton Pavilion was the only Green seat in the UK, having elected Caroline Lucas in 2010.
We left for our constituencies early afternoon on Monday 4 May armed with our handbooks, jackets, IDs (and of course an umbrella thoughtfully provided in our CPA goodie bag!). My team was assigned Exeter and we arrived there well in time for tea. We started early on Tuesday morning with our first meeting - with the Liberal Democrat candidate, a 22-year-old student who candidly told us that he knew he had no chance of winning the seat, which was going to have a Labour or Conservative winner, but that it was important to stand up for the liberal values he believed in. The day was spent in a very interesting manner – we accompanied the Labour MP door-knocking, met the Conservative candidate and his team, had a coffee with the Green candidate in an organic local-produce-only shop and met the UKIP candidate in the lobby of our hotel for a chat. As we reconvened for dinner all of us agreed that the campaign process seemed to be a remarkably smooth one, free from the unfair practices that are often observed in countries around the world.
The next morning, Wednesday, saw us arrive at the University of Exeter for an informal and engaging Q&A session with students. We had three takeaways from the exchange– many students had fallen off the electoral register due to the shift from household to individual registration; students felt as though their vote did not count in the first-past-the-post-system and hence did not often feel motivated to vote; and none of the political parties seemed to consider young people’s views in policy making.
Our afternoon stop was a fascinating one – we went to Exeter City Council to observe the sorting of postal ballots. Unlike many other Commonwealth countries which allow the postal ballot only for the armed forces or those on emergency duty, the UK offers this option to all its citizens and the postal vote routinely accounts for about 15% of the total. It was a manual process where trained council employees went about the tedious but necessary task of opening each envelope, separating the parliamentary from the council ballot and going through four separate checks before validating the vote and keeping it aside for counting later. The day ended with a sit-down dinner hosted by the Lord Mayor in the grand chambers of the Exeter Guildhall, the oldest working municipal building in the land.
Thursday 7 May was Election Day! We rose early and left the hotel to arrive at our first polling station by 6.30am to observe the opening procedures before voting started at 7 am. Polling clerks and presiding officers were all present well in time to complete the requisite formalities and welcome the first voter with a cheery “Good morning” before checking his name and address and directing him to the booth. The day flew by as we went from station to station, spending a minimum of 30 minutes in each, with only a quick tea or meal break, observing and filling out our “B” forms which served as a checklist for the correct procedure to be followed. Poll officials welcomed us everywhere and were extremely helpful in answering our queries.
As the evening progressed we left for a quick dinner break and made sure we were back in the last polling station well before 10pm to observe closing procedures. The station closed at the stroke of the hour with nobody in queue and the officials went about their tasks of sealing the boxes with clinical precision. We then followed the boxes to the counting centre, the Exeter Corn Exchange. The counting centre was a flurry of activity with ballots being brought in, candidates and their agents, officials and members of the press. We saw how the ballots were separated, sorted and then manually counted in a time-consuming but thorough process. And finally results – at about 3.30am it was announced that Labour had retained Exeter with the sitting MP Ben Bradshaw defeating his Conservative rival by a margin of about 8,000!
With barely a few hours of sleep we caught the train bleary-eyed back to London, checking anxiously for the results. By the time we reached Parliament at about 1pm it was clear that the Conservatives had pulled off a victory and David Cameron was on track for his second term. As we convened for the last time over lunch in the board room of CPA UK to present our report we were of the unanimous view that the Election Assessment Mission had been one of the most interesting exercises we had undertaken in our political careers. What we also agreed on were a few recommendations to a system that worked remarkably well on trust – a national voter ID card would make the system further fraud-proof, consistency in rules pertaining to voter validation, separate boxes for parliamentary and council ballots to speed up the sorting process, and consistency in the timing of the count where local councils do not decide when to start counting the parliamentary ballots.
All in all the mission was a grand success and we left having shared some, learned some, and most important having made some wonderful new friends!
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.