Lewis Baston talks you through the key results to watch out for from the moment the polls close into late Friday afternoon.
Polling stations around the country close. The broadcasters reveal the results of their exit polls and offer their projections of the national result. Exit polls are very expensive and sophisticated and – at least in 1997 and 2001 – have been pretty reliable. However, their forecast of a hung parliament in 1992 proved to be wide of the mark. Don’t go to bed yet, even if the forecasts are for a large Labour majority – at one stage the BBC’s computer projected a Labour majority of 144 in October 1974 and the actual result was a majority of 3.
After 45 minutes of pretending not to respond to the exit polls, politicians will be desperate for something else to talk about on the election night television coverage. Help is at hand. Sunderland City Council takes pride in announcing the first election result in the country, to the extent of employing teams of counters and (in 2001) rigging traffic lights to ensure that the vans carrying the ballot boxes reached the count centre as quickly as possible. Sunderland South was announced at 10.46pm last time. Labour’s Chris Mullin should win again, but the swing and the turnout should be a hint as to how the national battle is going. Turnout here in 2001 was only 48.3%, 11 points lower than the national rate of 59.4% (the gap was 12 points in 1997). If Mullin’s vote is under 17,000 (it was 19,921 in 2001 and 27,174 in 1997), either Labour is not doing well or turnout has slumped again – or both.
The other Sunderland counts should also be over and reveal predictable Labour majorities. A few other seats, none of them exciting, will have declared, and for those who are less than committed to election night television it is quite safe to go to the pub and get back home at about this time. You will not have missed much.
The first interesting declaration should be made at Torbay. Lib Dem Adrian Sanders gained the self-styled Riviera seat by only 12 votes over the Conservatives in 1997, but held it with a resounding margin of 6,708 in 2001. If the Conservative contender Marcus Wood has won, or got close, this would signify a bad defeat for the Lib Dems in the south-western marginals, and a good night for the Conservatives.
Another clutch of Labour holds should be announced at around midnight, including Alan Milburn at Darlington. If the Conservatives have gained Derbyshire South or Halifax from Labour, they are heading for an astonishing surprise victory and possibly even an overall majority in parliament. A more feasible target is Birmingham Edgbaston, Labour’s first televised gain in 1997, where Gisela Stuart defends a 4,698 majority against Conservative candidate Deirdre Alder. A Conservative win here, in their 102nd target seat, would point towards a Labour performance poor enough to lose the overall majority in parliament.
The flow of constituency results will have started to quicken. Along with some more Labour holds, there are some key marginals coming out at around this time, including the hotly contested south-west London seats of Battersea and Putney, both Labour gains in 1997. If Labour hold both, there will probably be a reasonable Labour majority in the new parliament; if either or both go blue the Conservatives’ hoped-for London revival will have arrived, after dismal defeats in the capital in 1997 and 2001. In marginal Wolverhampton South West, currently held by Labour’s Rob Marris, Sandip Verma is challenging for the Conservatives – if elected, she will be rather different from previous MPs Enoch Powell and Nicholas Budgen. Hull East is not a marginal by any definition, but John Prescott’s victory speech should be worth watching.
Two key constituencies to be announced are Birmingham Yardley, where the Lib Dems are very confident of gaining the seat from Labour, and the Kent seaside marginal of Thanet South. If Labour has held on in Thanet South, or lost by under 1,000, Tony Blair will be surprised and delighted – Labour would be on course for another landslide win.
Results are now coming in thick and fast. In 1997 there was a succession of astonishing Labour gains which could only be briefly noted by a red bar at the bottom of the TV screen. One of the few conceivable Labour gains of 2005 will come out at around this time, namely Brent East, where Lib Dem Sarah Teather defends her byelection gain of 2003. There is further Lib Dem interest in Bournemouth East, a long-shot for a gain from the Conservatives which, if it happens, may presage a broad Lib Dem advance; and Cheadle, where Lib Dem Patsy Calton will be looking to build on her majority of 33 votes, the smallest in the country in 2001. There are some more conventional marginals announced at this time as well, such as Calder Valley, Derby North, Portsmouth North, Ilford North, and Peterborough – Labour holds in all five would show a third landslide, although the party can afford to lose the last two of these seats and still be comfortably ahead. Several senior Labour figures should also see their results announced, including Robin Cook (Livingston), Ruth Kelly (Bolton West) and Jack Straw (Blackburn); if either Kelly or Straw have lost it would be very wounding for Labour.
Tony Blair’s own count at Sedgefield should be completed. Defeat for the prime minister is extremely unlikely, despite an impassioned anti-war challenge from Reg Keys, whose son was killed in Iraq. By the time he steps up to the podium to speak, he will have a pretty good idea of how the national contest will have gone – whether he still has a majority in the Commons and if so how large it is, to within about 10 seats either way.
Basildon will declare about now – it would be an even greater shock for Labour to lose out than it was in 1992. The Conservatives have targeted Dudley North and Dudley South despite their large Labour majorities –if either or both fall, Labour’s majority will have disappeared and the Tories may even be the largest party in the new parliament. The two Swindon constituencies are similar – apparently comfortably Labour held but volatile seats. The BNP leader Nick Griffin is standing in marginal Keighley but the main battle is still between Labour and the Conservatives. The interesting three-way marginal of Leeds North West may see the Lib Dems vault from third to first, in a seat with thousands of student voters – it might coincide with their London target Hornsey and Wood Green. These two results should indicate what success the Lib Dems have enjoyed in capitalising on liberal-left dissatisfaction with Labour. David Blunkett (Sheffield Brightside) and Lembit Opik (Montgomeryshire) should be back in parliament, but Theresa May (Maidenhead) might not – this is the first to declare of the Lib Dem “decapitation” targets on members of the Tory front bench.
The flow of results is probably at its peak. In the grudge match between Oona King and George Galloway in Bethnal Green and Bow, the Conservatives also have some hopes of slipping through the middle. The count could be lively. The marginal seat of Gravesham in Kent has been won by the party that has gone on to form the government in 23 of the 25 elections since 1918; we will see about now whether it can still claim to be Britain’s most reliable bellwether. There are some potentially fascinating and odd constituency results due. In Harwich, Labour will hope that a strong Ukip vote will stymie the Conservatives yet again in this naturally right-of-centre seat; the Conservatives in Hove and Wimbledon will be hoping that a trend in favour of Greens and Lib Dems hands them these naturally left-of-centre seats. David Davis defends Haltemprice and Howden; if the Conservatives do very badly, he loses the seat, but if the Conservatives do slightly less badly than that, he stands to gain the Conservative leadership.
While the national picture should be very clear by now, there are still some intriguing oddball results to be declared. If the Green Party were to win any seat in Britain, it would be Brighton Pavilion; if the BNP were to win anywhere it would probably be in Dewsbury, a town with a reputation for poor race relations where the two main party candidates are both from ethnic minorities. Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath is the most Muslim constituency in Britain; while Labour’s majority is mountainous the Lib Dems may have some momentum, particularly after the election fraud case. Wyre Forest’s Independent MP, Dr Richard Taylor, whose triumph was one of the eye-catching results in 2001, defends his seat.
Two more three-way marginals declare, at Bristol West and Watford. Alistair Darling should win the new seat of Edinburgh South West, but if Labour are having a Scottish disaster he might be threatened. Stephen Twigg also defends Enfield Southgate, and Tim Collins should fight off the Lib Dems in Westmorland and Lonsdale.
The result should come in from Oliver Letwin’s constituency of Dorset West, the veritable Place de la Concorde among the Lib Dems’ “decapitation” targets. The shadow chancellor has worked himself to the bone defending this marginal against Justine McGuinness, and will now know whether he has survived.
Charles Kennedy’s rural acres of Ross, Skye and Lochaber will surely give him another term, as it has since 1983, half Kennedy’s lifetime ago. The Liberal Democrat leader will know by now whether his party has made significant advances or not.
Conservative leader Michael Howard learns what the electorate of his own constituency, Folkestone and Hythe, thinks of him. Despite some Lib Dem hopes to the contrary, locally he should win comfortably whatever happens nationally. If the Conservatives have won a surprise national victory, expect cheering hordes of Tories to have descended on Folkestone. There are not too many other seats left at this stage, although there are a couple of interesting Lib Dem v Labour fights in Cambridge and Islington South and Finsbury. Labour defend their narrowest majority (153 votes) at Dorset South, against amateur photo-editor Ed Matts, and Boris Johnson should emerge dishevelled, weary and triumphant at Henley. 4.30am
There are a few marginals left to be scraped from the barrel, but unless Labour have enjoyed another national landslide Conservative gains can be more or less taken for granted at Lancaster and Wyre and Kettering.
Only the real die-hards, and people with a personal stake in the matter, will still be watching when two safe Conservative seats, Wealden and Penrith and the Border, wearily declare their results as Friday dawns.
No results from Northern Ireland will be declared overnight; the count here starts on Friday morning. Several of the counts will be very fraught affairs, including Upper Bann, where the UUP leader, David Trimble, will hear if he has fought off the challenge of the DUP. Sinn Féin won the hard-fought four way marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 2001 by a disputed 53-vote margin, and politics there is always tense.
There used to be several hundred mainland results declared on the Friday, but now there are a handful, mostly in rural areas which are safe for the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats. The last British marginal to declare is expected to be Harlow in Essex, where Oliver Letwin’s chief of staff, Robert Halfon, takes on Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell. But Harlow might not be the end of it. There is a statistical likelihood of a very close (50 votes or fewer) result somewhere in the country, and that would probably mean a series of recounts. The count in Winchester in 1997 was not completed until Friday evening, when Lib Dem Mark Oaten was declared elected by 2 votes.