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Battleground: Clacton

The announcement this morning of Douglas Carswell’s decision to resign from Parliament and defect from the Conservative Party to UKIP has thrown up a by-election in extraordinary circumstances.

Carswell was elected with a thumping 12,000 majority in 2010 for the newly-formed constituency of Clacton. Proudly rebellious yet thoughtful too, he had surprised everyone in January by telling the Spectator that he’d given up his membership of the awkward squad – because the Conservative’s policy on Europe was what eurosceptics like him wanted and it was time to fall in line:

We’ve got what we want. Your tactics in Parliament should support your strategy. Instead I’m a little bit dismayed that sometimes the tactics adopted by people who feel as strongly about Europe as I do undermine the strategy… the in-out referendum offered by Cameron in his Bloomberg speech was an absolutely key moment. Since then I’ve found my break button, my pause button. I think we all need to find our break button, our pause button.”

Seven months later he has been confirmed as the UKIP candidate in a parliamentary by-election that no-one saw coming. Not even the UKIP candidate.

Roger Lord was elected to Essex County Council for UKIP in May last year. Having been selected as the parliamentary candidate he found out about Carswell’s defection and the by-election at the same time as everyone else. Politics is a cruel game at the best of times, but to hear that you’ve been dumped as a candidate via a curt statement from a UKIP official whilst giving a live radio interview will no doubt leave a sour taste in the mouth. Not just for Lord but for anyone who has spent time with him delivering leaflets in the rain and knocking on doors in the cold, for UKIP, against Douglas Carswell.

Clacton as a constituency battleground is as difficult to read as Carswell himself. The huge Conservative majority mentioned above will be due, in some part, to the man who has just joined the other side. Carswell has written on a number of occasions about the right way to rebuild party membership and has been successful following his own methods. His Association Chairman told Radio 5 Live today that the local party had retained membership despite the unhappiness caused by the Same Sex Marriage Bill and in fact members and activists had increased since 2010. Carswell will be leaving behind the network he was instrumental in building and walking into one he has helped to disrupt.

Local election results paint a colourful picture. 2011 saw all 60 seats on Tendring District Council up for grabs, of which 38 fall within Clacton parliamentary constituency. 20 went to the Conservatives, four to Labour and one to the Lib Dems but the remaining 13 went to a smattering of independents and two local residents’ parties. County Council elections in 2013 saw UKIP added to the composition in the form of Cllr Lord. At the European elections, the votes in the Tendring Council area saw just under 19,400 people plumping for purple against just 9,981 picking blue. It’s anyone’s guess whether there's a trend towards UKIP or they were only in fashion for the European elections.

A shorter campaign will suit the Conservatives who proved in Newark how effectively Central Office can mobilise to get boots on the ground. A longer one will be preferable to UKIP who, although not slow to manoeuvre will nonetheless be grateful for the chance to fill airwaves with Farage and UKIP for the next five weeks.

It's anyone's game, Clacton.



Hat-tip to @wallaceme for the Audioboo clip



The Count

The Count. Years of campaigning have come to this. There isn’t any more you can do, although your head is full of all the things you wished you could have done, or done better. Over the next few hours you will be watching the outcome of all your efforts being quantified, achingly slowly, before your very eyes.

As boxes are upturned onto tables and ballots come pouring out, counting clerks begin the process of placing into piles the votes for you, and the votes for all the others. Parts of that process give you the opportunity of making a good guess about the result before it’s announced.

In brief, the process of the count is as follows. First of all, counting clerks have to verify that the number of ballots in each box match the number that were put in them when they were sealed at the polling stations. Once this is done, ballots from two polling districts are mixed and the actual Count begins by placing ballot papers into piles of the respective candidates. From here the piles of votes are put into bundles. Any doubtful ballot papers (where there is a dispute over who the elector has voted for, or if it should be rejected for any reason) go through adjudication and can then be added to the bundles. After this the Returning Officer can inform election agents of the final result and if no re-counts are requested, he makes the declaration of the result.

So if you want to be able to make a good guess about what the result will be before the declaration, get to the Count before the verification stage begins. This will give you a chance to view votes from individual polling districts before they are mixed. Whether you’re there for a local council election or a parliamentary one, it’s best to find a mix of your best and worst polling districts, plus swing polling districts, in order to give you as balanced a picture as possible.

As the ballots are being verified, you can keep a tally sheet of how many votes you’ve seen for each candidate. This is called sampling. By doing this in your best and worst polling districts, you can gauge whether or not you think you’ve won. Obviously the more sampling you do, the more representative your sample but be aware of the turnout in each district. You may be comfortably winning in your better polling districts, but if turnout in those districts has been low then so will your vote.

Sampling often takes practice to get right but it’s possible through experience to become very good at it, giving you the chance to predict results before they’re declared.

For newer parties or those wishing to make inroads into new areas, sampling also gives you an indication about which polling districts are good for you and therefore where to concentrate effort for the next election.



A small number of other observations

The most important people in the room are not the candidates, but the polling clerks who are counting the votes. By all means stand and watch them count (as you’re supposed to) and challenge where you need to, but don’t chat (or worse, argue) with others while you stand there watching them count.

Get briefed by your election agent before the Count on what doubtful ballot papers are. If you don’t get briefed, then don’t make challenges.