Vote 04: On Whose Authority?

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Peter Morgan tries to find out how well the left did in the recent elections.

The task, I thought, was a simple one. Socialist Review wanted to print a map showing the breakdown of vote by ward in some of the London boroughs to see how well Respect did. There is a by-election in St Dunstans and Stepney Green ward in Tower Hamlets on 29 July, so it would have been useful for the Respect coalition to gauge how they did at the European election, if their campaign worked, and if their supporters and sympathisers turned out to vote. It is worth pointing out that these figures are available for Birmingham (where they have a by-election on 15 July), and Sheffield, so why shouldn't they be available for London as well?

The task, however, was to prove more difficult than expected.

The vote in London by borough is freely available, and has been since the result was declared. So, for example, you can get the vote for Newham, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and so on by looking at the website www.londonelects.org.uk. Yet each borough is broken down into wards. So, for instance, Tower Hamlets has 17 wards, Hackney has 19 wards and so on. These votes are not shown and are not public. Yet all of these wards have, to varying degrees, relatively large number of voters, certainly larger than most opinion polls or focus groups that psephologists rely on to gauge voting intentions before elections.

First port of call was the London Elects media office to see if the votes are available and, if so, how to get hold of them. We already had a map of the wards, and a graphic ready to print if only we could get the vote by wards.

The London Elects press officer informed us that the vote was counted not just by ward, but also by ballot box, and it was done electronically. Yet the information was not available because the company that conducted the vote had not released it. They informed us that the contract to count the London vote was done by a private company, DRS, at a cost to the taxpayer of £5 million. So we contacted them and spoke to a very helpful press officer who informed us that there was no statutory duty to release this information.

'There may not be a statutory duty,' I said, 'but surely this information should be in the public domain so journalists, psephologists and even members of the public can see how the parties fared in the wards of London. Surely this information is not the property of DRS to withhold?'

'But we have not had a request for this information,' the DRS spokeswoman said. 'Well, I'd like to make one now,' I replied. There was a long pause, and then a promise to phone back as soon as possible which, to her credit, she did within ten minutes.

Because DRS has a contract with the GLA, any request for information had to be through the GLA electoral office, they informed us. They were not at liberty to release information to the general public.

So we went back to the GLA media office. After once again making a series of phone calls, they informed us that any relevant information was to be released to the individual boroughs, and it was them I had to contact. So I got in touch with the returning officers in a number of boroughs - Tower Hamlets, Newham, Waltham Forest - to see if they had the information.

Once again, this was not available. DRS have not supplied the information, I was told, and it is the duty of the GLA returning officer to request it.

So it was back to the GLA media office, which told us that DRS will be releasing all the relevant information as soon as possible. When I asked how long 'as soon as possible' was, they could not give an answer.

So I asked DRS how long it would take before this information would be released. Surely if the counting was done electronically and by ballot box it must be quite simple to do a computer search and request votes by ward in each borough? This wouldn't take much time, and besides there is a discussion going on about the vote, who did well and where. There was a big debate in the Guardian letters page that day.

After a day and a half of this we thought maybe the idea of a snazzy graphic in our new full-colour magazine simply wasn't going to be a runner. But then DRS came back to us and said all information was to be released to the boroughs, and they should have it available within a few hours.

We went back to some of the London borough returning officers to see, at last, how the vote was broken down by ward. Yet the only information released by DRS was the total number of votes cast in each ward, not how the vote was distributed to each party. It was a bit like eating a chocolate liqueur, but not being allowed to have the nice bit in the middle.

So it was back to DRS and their by now irate press officer. She passed me on to Sonia Douglas, the head of the electoral team. The information we wanted would not be released as the GLA had not requested it, and it was with them that DRS had a contract, she said.

Our friend at the GLA electoral office thus had another call. 'Why,' I asked, 'will you not request this information and release it to the public? Surely this is not yours to withhold and should be freely available?'

'This information is not important to the overall vote,' he said, 'as the count by borough is what is important.'

'Yes, of course for the immediate result the vote by borough is what counts,' I replied, 'as it was important that the result of the election was calculated as soon as possible. But for an analysis of the vote, surely the vote by ward is important, especially bearing in mind there is a by-election coming up soon in Tower Hamlets.'

'Well, this information would be very expensive to obtain,' came the reply.

'OK,' I said, 'our magazine will meet the cost of obtaining the information, and if necessary supply the personnel to do the counting.' Maybe I shouldn't have said that, as I'm sure that we don't have sufficient funds, but what the heck - things were getting heated on the phone, and it brought a long pause on the other end.

'No, the information will not be released by ward, as we do not have a statutory duty to do so,' came the dogged reply.

'So can I get this clear?' I asked. 'And I'd like to make this clear that this is a press query and your reply is on the record. Is the GLA electoral office saying it will not be requesting and releasing the vote by ward, even though the information is there and obtainable?'

'No, the information will not be released by ward, as we do not have a statutory duty to do so, and besides, this information is not important to the overall vote, as the count by borough is what is important,' he said. And so that was that, then. The deadline was looming, and maybe we had gone as far as we could on this one.

I made a quick call to one of our friendly borough returning officers to tell him their response, at which he just let out one of those 'what a surprise' laughs. But then he said something very useful. When the Freedom of Information Bill becomes law on 1 January 2005 this information must, by law, be freely available on request, he said.

I hadn't thought of that one... Well, I hadn't known, to be honest.

So, another try with the GLA media office. 'Just one last question,' I asked. 'When the Freedom of Information Bill comes in on 1 January next year will I be able to get the information I'm after?' There was a long pause.

'If you put in a request in accordance with the law,' came the response.

'So the information we want now is not available when there is a debate going on, but will be in eight months time when the election result is well in the past,' I said.

There was nothing more to say really. Nearly three days of this and staring defeat in the GLA electoral office face, I thought maybe it's time to call it quits.

In the meantime a number of things had been revealed. Firstly, as one official told me, a number of boroughs only allocated enough ballot papers for an estimated turnout of 40 percent (even though they had in storage enough ballot papers for a 75 percent turnout). One of the reasons for not dishing out more ballot papers was that they were heavy and expensive to distribute. The result of this was that at a number of ballot boxes they ran out of ballot papers and had to request extra. And in at least one London borough they had to ferry extra ballot papers out to wards as the turnout exceeded 50 percent (and they managed to get them out so people could vote when they turned up). But in some boroughs this did not happen, which meant people being denied the vote. You can only guess what someone would do if, after popping into the polling station after work on the way home, there was no ballot paper. Would they return to vote later? Who knows, but what is clear is that this was a further disenfranchisement of the electorate on top of the huge number of spoilt ballot papers.

Secondly, the irony is that the Labour government introduced the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to provide more openness and scrutiny for public authorities. Its intention is 'to provide for a general right of access to information held by public authorities. The publication scheme [of the act] sets out what information a council [or public authority] routinely publishes or intends to publish... The publication scheme is intended to promote openness and transparency and to ensure that a significant and growing amount of information is, readily available for individuals to make a specific request for information.' Bearing all this in mind, it is rather strange that the GLA returning officer has decided to act contrary to the spirit of a piece of legislation that is already passed by New Labour.

In the meantime, if you wish to try and find the result by ward in London for the 2004 European election I can only suggest you phone Jonathan Kinsella at the GLA election office, or indeed the Greater London returning officer, Anthony Mayer, on 020 7983 4442, although I'm not sure how happy they will be to help.