Gearing up for my seventh election heaven
I am about to embark on my seventh general election campaign as a political journalist. And since election campaigns are my idea of heaven, I guess that means I’m in seventh heaven!
I’ve always said that for political correspondents party conferences are our FA Cup Final or Champions League and general election campaigns are our World Cup.
Like World Cups, we got used to general elections coming round every four years, apart from 1992-97 and now, 2010-2015, under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.
I have covered general elections for five different news organisations. This will be my third for Sky News. For my first, I typed my copy on a manual typewriter with paper and carbon. This time it will be all Twitter, Facebook, smartphone, iPad and unique users and customers, no longer readers or viewers.
Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister when I started and Michael Foot was Labour leader. I remember that in her daily press conferences in the old Conservative Central Office in Smith Square, Denis Thatcher would stand at the back and give a running commentary on the questions from the hacks. These days he’d have a TV camera or mobile phone pointed at him and be all over Twitter.
But Maggie, who chaired press conferences herself, was always courteous to young regional correspondents like me and regularly called us to ask questions, much more than happens now, when news conferences are dominated by the broadcasting titans.
In 1983 I was the junior political reporter on the Thomson Regional Newspapers Westminster team, writing mostly for the morning papers, the Western Mail, in Cardiff, The Journal, in Newcastle, and the Press and Journal, published in Aberdeen but serving the whole of the highlands and islands of Scotland.
Whenever I asked Michael Foot a question, he used to call the Western Mail “the coal owners’ paper”. I was there at the famous press conference, in Transport House, when Labour’s general secretary, Jim Mortimer, stunned the journalists present by declaring: “The unanimous view of the campaign committee is that Michael Foot is the leader of the Labour Party and speaks for the party.”
A numb silence fell on the room, broken by – of all people – Clive James, who was writing colour pieces for The Observer during the campaign and whose quick thinking put the seasoned political journalists to shame. “Oh, there was some debate about it, was there?” he piped up in his wonderful Aussie accent.
The 1987 campaign, working for Andrew Neil’s Sunday Times, was my first using a computer, which we used to call “new technology” in those days. I was covering David Steel and David Owen, leaders of the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and my highlight was Steel’s cry of frustration that they looked “like Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”
My first mobile phone election was 1992, for the Daily Express, when I had what colleagues on other papers unkindly called a “talking brick”. We dubbed the election desk “the smear desk” and I shared a byline on the notorious “Jennifer’s Ear” story about the NHS with Peter Hitchens, who also managed to get into a scuffle with Neil Kinnock after one Labour press conference in the Atrium, in Four Millbank, where I now work.
The mobile phone is significant, because on election night the political team were dining in the Chinese restaurant near the Blackfriars office when my colleague Nick Assinder’s mobile rang. The caller was, to Nick’s startlement and surprise, John Major, the Prime Minister.
The PM had rung the news desk and asked for Nick. But he meant Nick Lloyd – Sir Nicholas, the editor and one of major’s most loyal allies in Fleet Street – and not the deputy political editor, whose views are anything but Tory. I’ve always called him “Red Nick” and asked him: “How’s the revolution going, Nick?” To which he replies: “It’s on hold.”
By 1997, although still at the Daily Express, I was well into moonlighting for TV companies and spent the morning after election night in Downing Street – working for a broadcaster - covering the grand entrance of Tony and Cherie Blair, cheered on by all those adoring Labour activists. Wonder what they all think about that day now?
Last time, 2010, was the first general election with TV debates. I was “debates correspondent”, which meant previewing, reporting and analysing not just the Sky News debate in Bristol, but also ITV’s at the Granada studios in Manchester and the BBC’s at Birmingham University. In Bristol, I watched with awe as Sky’s Kay Burley successfully negotiated the cobbles of Bristol Harbourside in her elegant stilettos.
This time, leaving aside the row over whether or when TV debates will happen, all the broadcasters - not least Sky News, naturally - are putting a colossal and unprecedented effort into planning not only the election campaign and election night, but also the potential wrangling in the days and weeks after May 7.
At Sky News, planning has been going on for months as we set about getting the results first, not just on TV but on all the “digital platforms” as we like to call them. Rehearsals for election night are already underway. We’ll have people at every count and have presenters as well as correspondents all over the UK.
But it won’t just be the results. We’ll have teams monitoring social media as well as using it. Politicians, political parties, spin doctors, pundits and commentators are all using Twitter, in particular. So we’ll be live tweeting, tagging, retweeting and all the rest.
I expect to be spending a lot of time in Scotland during the campaign. In every previous general election I’ve covered, Scotland has hardly been a key battleground, consistently returning about 40 Labour MPs to Westminster. Not this time! Results in Scotland look likely to determine who ends up in Downing Street after May 7.
And to those who complain of a “zombie Parliament” with no characters in the House of Commons, there’s a good chance the Commons will include those shy, introverted types Alex Salmond, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage after the general election. So don’t let anyone tell you politics or general elections are boring!
Not that anything could compare with a priceless moment during my first campaign, 1983, when Margaret Thatcher was visiting a school gym and was encouraged by photographers to pose sitting on a vaulting horse.
“Does this thing jerk you off?” she enquired, prompting photographers, reporters and TV crews to fall on the floor in hysterics like the Martians in the old Cadbury’s Smash adverts.
If one of the party leaders came up with such a hilarious line in 2015, it would instantly be on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and elsewhere.
See, general elections can be just as entertaining as the World Cup!