Election night drama is preserved

MPs vote to retain late-night counts, meaning public will not have to wait for results
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Indy Politics

A move to strip general election night of its drama has been thwarted by MPs and political junkies from all parties.

As many as one-quarter of the country's returning officers had been planning to delay the count until the day after the expected 6 May election as a cost-cutting move.

The town halls' decision could have meant the public getting up the morning after voting – and not knowing who was about to form the new government.

In addition, there might no longer be the late-night moments of political theatre that encapsulated the shift in the public mood.

In 1997, Labour supporters knew they were heading for a landslide when a stunned Michael Portillo was ousted from his previously safe seat in the full glare of television cameras. Five years earlier, Tories sensed John Major was heading for a surprise victory when the party hung on to its iconic Essex seat of Basildon.

But election-night counts looked to have been saved after the Government backed a Tory proposal to guarantee the votes were tallied within four hours of the polling stations closing.

Jonathan Isaby, the co-founder of the Save General Election Night campaign and co-editor of ConservativeHome, said: "I am delighted that what started as an internet-based campaign last autumn has finally borne fruit.

"We have argued throughout that overnight counting is absolutely vital to retaining interest and faith in the democratic process."

A Commons motion to save the counts was signed by more than 200 MPs and a similar Facebook group attracted over 6,000 members.

But the Electoral Commission suggested that moves to prevent counts being delayed until the morning after polling day might run into difficulties in practice.

It said: "Returning officers have a responsibility to make sure the results are accurate and accepted. Nothing is more important than that."

Returning officers also reacted angrily, insisting that their task was to provide accurate results, not "entertainment".

David Monks, who speaks on the issue for the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, said: "The general election is probably a couple of months away – in fact, it could be quicker than that – and there is a convention that the Ministry of Justice try not to introduce new substantial changes in electoral law and procedure within six months of an election."

The Tory amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill requires the counting of votes in parliamentary elections to start "within four hours of the close of the poll, save in exceptional circumstances". It was backed without a vote in the Commons.

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, said the move would send a "clear message to electoral registration officers about the intent across all sides of the House".

He told MPs: "Concern has been expressed on all sides of the House about a growing trend by electoral returning officers, for their own convenience and nobody else's, to defer the counting of most of the constituencies – which have always been counted in the past on the night of the election – until the following day."