The first General Election I remember was the February 1974 one; I quickly warmed to the concept when I realised I got a day off school, even if BBC1’s children’s programmes were shunted over to BBC2 so a lot of earnest, beige-suited men could talk Double Dutch on what looked like the bridge of USS Enterprise. I recall standing outside the local church hall with my baby brother when my mum went inside to vote – something that would probably be classed as child neglect in 2015; when I visited my neighbourhood polling station this morning, I half-expected there to be a crèche and a breast-feeding corner. Ironically, there was a young mother with a pushchair in there.
Times have indeed changed, yet there’s a strange sense of having come full circle today; on that chilly February morning in 1974, the two main parties were (as they say) neck-and-neck in the polls; this morning’s front cover of the Sun showed Labour and the Tories each on 34%. I almost bought a paper, but I only had a quid left and instead opted for a Pot Noodle. The jury is out as to which would provide the most nourishment.
It was barely a ten-minute walk in drizzly rain to the parish centre acting as the polling station; as I approached, several placards had been uprooted and scattered randomly. A plummy-voiced old lady asked me who had done it, as though as I should know. Perhaps she’d noticed I’d picked up the remnants of a UKIP one and used it as a prop for the shot accompanying this article. Anyone who remembers the brilliant satirical sitcom set in an early 90s newsroom, ‘Drop the Dead Donkey’, will recall Stephen Tomkinson’s war-zone reporter, who always ended his coverage of a massacre by producing a small teddy bear, claiming all that was left amidst the carnage was ‘this child’s toy’; I admit my requisition of the broken placard was as cynical, but I thought it was a canny touch.
Once inside the polling station, I appeared to be the youngest person present bar a couple of first-time voter student girls; they were as bewildered by the inept directions to the room where the deed would be done as I was. A rather ramshackle little edifice probably materialising at the end of the 1970s, the parish centre was surprisingly quiet; most of the voters already there looked like avuncular models for a cardigan catalogue aimed at the recently retired. The only waiting to be done was when my name and address were checked by the middle-aged couple sat at a table festooned with forms and leaflets. Within five minutes of arriving, I was handed two ballot papers – one for the Big Event and one for council elections (I never even realised there were any council elections taking place).
I felt like Glenda Jackson in that Public Information Film encouraging the giving of blood, the one where Ernie Wise assures her it’s a painless process; and, like Hancock, anticipation of tea and biscuits after doing my duty was in vain. On my way out, I caught a brief glimpse of the room where the counting would begin when the clock strikes ten tonight; the counters, if that is the collective noun, already looked jaded. They’d clearly been up early and were destined for a late night, but my own contribution to the democratic process was over and I headed for home.
I wish I could say I felt fulfilled by the experience, but I disappointingly didn’t; there’s always that Pot Noodle, though…