There is always keen interest in mid-term parliamentary elections; they sample the political temperature of the country.
For the one-month period between Tristram Hunt announcing his resignation as Stoke-on-Trent Central MP and the election of Gareth Snell as his successor, it seemed all eyes fell on our city.
It’s not every day that the Wall Street Journal, South Korean TV crews and Japanese newspapers take an active interest in Stoke-on-Trent. For those four weeks, this became the norm as ten candidates, including every major political party and Ukip’s national leader standing, canvassed for votes.
With such scrutiny and just one month from the notice of poll to election day, it was essential that we had a fully planned and coordinated response across the council. Crucially, we brought in colleagues from IT, security, communications, customer services and business support from the outset and this shared vision and approach definitely paid off.
We received 143 media requests to attend the count, with heightened concerns around security, so made sure we planned for health and safety, involvement from the police and other public service partners from an early stage.
Advanced recces of the venue were critical, not only with the media but with count staff, security and others involved. This was especially important when the large sports complex used for the count needed to be transformed for a national gymnastics competition immediately after we finished. It was important to maintain a fine balance of energy and consistency to manage the continual demands throughout the four weeks.
My approach was one of ‘firm but fair’ with the media. I was absolutely clear from the outset on the parameters in which they were to operate. For example, we listened to their technical requests, I confirmed later what we could provide, and the media responded well to a 5ft tall middle-aged woman telling them her rule was reality. We provided a demarked area cordoned off very clearly for the media with staging and facilities for live TV broadcasts throughout the night, as they requested. There was limited power and wifi but clear information on this and other essentials throughout. This worked.
Thinking of all the practicalities also made a difference. The café was kept open overnight and we provided breakout areas for both candidates and the media. We also had colour-coded wristbands and security staff were instructed to allow no-one in without them. This led to some interesting incidents to resolve, with both a senior police officer and the leader of Ukip both having their entry queried on the night.
Exceptional support was secured from our local police force, who left nothing to chance. The count hall was swept by police experts and the cutest of sniffer dogs: my favourite part of the count.
While it felt like overkill, I planned for every eventuality. This included sending a detailed evacuation procedure to all parties and media. It seems you can never plan enough; at 1am when the security alarm went off, I was so grateful I had prepared. Thankfully it was a false alarm.
So as with all elections, the best advice I can give is that of the Boy Scouts – be prepared – and plan for everything. We appointed our A-team polling station inspectors and we even had road gritting machines on standby for polling stations in case the February weather took a turn for the worse.
It seems preparation did pay off. The Electoral Commission, which inspected our polling stations and attended the count, gave us some exceptional feedback, praising our organisation and calling the count “efficient and effective”.
With hindsight I should have corralled the candidates to stand on stage for the declaration as they failed to follow me. A key learning from me is to ensure your stage is set, the candidates are in place and that you take a moment to breathe and remain calm before announcing the big result. And lastly be kind to yourself; temperatures do rise and the whole process happens so quickly.
The media also gave exceptional feedback on our management of the election. The only criticism was that the acting returning officer (me) was too short and needed a step to be seen. That’s something I can live with.
Fiona Ledden, acting returning officer, Stoke-on-Trent City Council