After a gruelling seven-week election campaign, everything came down to the wire. At close to 7am on the morning of June 9th, more than 24 hours without sleep, and after two recounts, the result was declared – Farrelly 21,124, Meredith 21,094. By the tightest of margins Labour had clung on the Newcastle-under-Lyme constituency, despite the biggest vote share for my party in 117 years.
Standing in the old Ballroom of Keele Hall - where I’d spent many nights celebrating as a student - as the result was read out, was truly bruising. I was called forward to give the speech I’d written earlier, but hoped I’d never have to use, conceding the election. As painful that was, my priorities turned from canvassing votes to finding out what had gone wrong. Throughout the election campaign, my team and I had received reports of missing postal ballots, errors and omissions from the electoral register. In the days that followed, I had untold numbers of emails and phone calls from concerned residents who had been turned away from polling stations, denied the opportunity to vote. It was becoming increasingly clear that this story was not a set of isolated incidents, but a systematic pattern of failures.
I called for an investigation, not because I was seeking to overturn the election result, but because I was livid that in Britain in 2017, it appeared something had gone horribly wrong with democracy.
The council listened and headed that call, commissioning an independent report on the administration of the election from Andrew Scallan CBE from the Association of Election Administrators. Nearly six months later, we now have that report and know the true scale and catalogue of errors. More than 1,500 people denied the right to vote - 500 postal ballots simply not sent, and 1,000 names missing from the register. To boot, two who weren’t entitled to vote managed to do so. Far worse than anything I had feared.
A right that my grandparents fought to defend, a democracy we have exported around the world, undermined through pure incompetence.
While the tiny majority makes the findings stick in the throat, and the report rightly states the scale of disenfranchisement raises questions about the mandate of our MP, my priority has always been to get to the bottom of what went wrong. Laid bare in this report we see the true scale of the failings and how chronic mismanagement of the Council and under-resourcing of the elections office with inexperienced staff have acted to undermine democracy.
No one can give back the vote to those 1,500-people, no re-run or by-election can recapture the moment on June 8th. We will never truly know the will of the people in Newcastle-under-Lyme on that General Election day, but what we owe to each and every one of them is to ensure this sorry state of affairs is never repeated. It is vital that the Council now learn the lessons from this dire experience and that all 16 recommendations of the report are implemented in full.
To do so requires leadership.
Leadership that is sadly lacking in the current administration. Voters have rightly lost trust in the ability of Newcastle Borough Council to act with competence, or to represent the will of the people.
People in Newcastle deserve a Council that acts with competence. A council that speaks for the people it represents. A council that can be trusted. Without this, we have little hope of restoring vital trust and credibility in the process that elects our political leaders. Faith in the ballot box is fundamental to all parties, whatever the outcome of an election, we can all rest knowing the will of the people is paramount. However, if that faith is misplaced, then democracy itself is depleted.
As the Council debates the report and its findings this evening, it is this single mission – to restore voters trust - that should be forefront of councillors’ minds.