There can be few people in the UK who get quite as excited about election night as Hansard reporters. We’re gripped not only by the question of which party will (or won’t) win a majority, and whether our own constituency MP will retain their seat. We relish the announcement of every single result – every micro-drama across the map. Each newly-elected MP is a fresh voice for us to report. And every former Member who loses their seat is a person we know a little bit about—what issues they care about and even their preferred seat in the Commons chamber. For some Hansard staff, election night (in reality, the early hours of the next morning) is spent keeping as close an eye on the results as possible. Some of us work through the early hours to update the official records of Parliament, while others produce invaluable resources to help colleagues learn new MPs’ faces by the following week.
General Election results project
Helen Lowe, Committee Sub-Editor
Do you like to stay up late on election night? This year, I’ll be doing the opposite—hunkering down in bed super early hoping for a few hours’ kip, before heading into the office and working till dawn. That’s because I’m one of six Hansard volunteers helping House of Commons Library statisticians compile Parliament’s in-house record of the election results. We’ve spent the last couple of weeks drawing up a comprehensive dataset of all the candidates, and tonight is all about recording the winners. Lots of Parliamentary staff will need this info urgently early tomorrow morning as they begin the massive task of welcoming hundreds of new MPs to the House. Here’s how tonight is likely to go:
1.15 am: My alarm goes off. I drag myself out of bed, throw on some clothes and make myself a much-needed coffee. A few mouthfuls in, my phone beeps—the taxi is waiting outside to take me to the office.
2 am: I arrive at the office with the other volunteers. The atmosphere is already quite exciting: someone’s turned on the TV, and results are starting to trickle in. I note with approval the table piled high with carb-rich snack food and several gallons of coffee. We’re each assigned an electoral region and tasked with marking off winners as they’re declared. We’ll also cross-check the results to make sure the record is correct.
3 am: More constituencies are declaring now, but we’re keeping pace. It’s crucial to balance speed with attention to detail here to make sure no mistakes slip through—we don’t want anyone who wasn’t elected being accidentally invited to take up their seat in the House of Commons! I have a couple of mini doughnuts to aid my focus.
4.30 am: The steady stream of results has turned into a flood, and it’s impossible to keep up. That’s ok, though. Just keep plodding on. And snacking. At some point, I look out the window and notice that the sun is starting to rise.
8 am: Phew! We’ve caught up. With only a handful of results yet to be declared, we’re given breakfast and released into the wild. I take the tube home as most other Londoners are making their way into work, and—of course, it might just be the sleep deprivation talking—I feel secretly pretty lucky to have this job.
Our work will be central to getting Parliament ready for the election: House staff need quick access to reliable information about who is—and who is no longer—an MP, and the official list of results from the Electoral Commission isn’t published until some months after the election. The data will also be used by Library statisticians, who publish a comprehensive analytical report after each election.
James Lawrenson, Parliamentary Reporter
Member recognition is an important tool in any Hansard reporter's armoury. In a frantic Prime Minister’s Question Time, say, the more time we spend trying to recognise each Member who speaks, the less time we have to note down things such as the first words they say, which the microphones can sometimes just miss. By the end of a Parliament, our Member recognition will be at its peak, but an election obviously changes that.
We don't have the luxury of time to learn the new faces that appear after an election; we need to know who they all are by the time Parliament reconvenes, sometimes less than a week later. In response, I developed a Memrise course to assist colleagues in learning all those faces. Memrise is an education website that aims to help users gradually memorise information, whether that be a language, the capital cities of the world or, in our case, UK Members of Parliament. Our course asks the user to identify an MP by displaying their picture. As the user’s knowledge develops, they progress from selecting the right name from a list to typing the name of the MP themselves. The faces that users find more difficult to remember keep coming back until they have finally been committed to memory. Progress is recorded and users are ranked, in the spirit of healthy competition.
Having updated the databases in 2015 and 2017, I'm well-practised in the art. I now know, for instance, that trying to keep up with the results as they come in is a fool's errand, least of all when a flurry arrives at 4am and the coffee and matchsticks are failing to keep my eyes propped open. Some years are bigger than others—2017 saw only 100 or so new MPs, but this year will have greater churn, with 74 MPs standing down before we count who lose their seats. So this year I'll be collating my list of new Members early on Friday 13th—hopefully not an omen—and getting the update in place by Monday, ready for everyone to start competing once more to be at the top of the leaderboard.
Once you have signed up to use the website, you will be able to access our course. It includes every Member of Parliament (not just new ones), so is useful for anyone who needs to recognise MPs, whatever the level of knowledge.
Read our blog post on why Hansard reporters need to know all MPs on sight and how we prepare for general elections. Next week, we will be blogging about Hansard’s work in the immediate aftermath of the election.
Polling station image credit: Pete, Flickr