BBC News

A beginner's guide to election night: Nine things to watch out for

By Alex Regan
BBC News Online


It's Westminster's X-Factor. For politicians election night is a never-ending thrill ride where the direction of a swingometer can leave a long-standing back bencher in tears and even the most experienced pollster in a state of shock.

If you're planning on staying up this election night, here are nine things to watch out for.

1. The election night music

media captionTimelapse video of the BBC election set being built

Every iconic programme has its own recognisable theme - Match of the Day, EastEnders and Doctor Who to name a few - and the BBC's election night coverage is no different. The theme remained the same from 1979-2005, and it showed. The theme tune featured a rather garish synthesizer.

But those days are long gone, and since 2010 the British public has been treated to an anthemic piece - the politico's call to armchairs - not dissimilar from the theme music to Black Beauty. Politics fans cannot help but stand to attention, invigorated and shaking with anticipation for the next 16 hours of rolling coverage.

image captionBBC Election 2017 studio

2. Arise, Sir David of Dimbleby

One of the most recognisable faces in political broadcasting, David Dimbleby has hosted nine election nights and will complete his 10th and final overnight broadcast on 8 June.

For nine hours Dimbleby steers the election night coverage through hundreds of declarations, hours of pollster speculation, and the odd technical fault.

His diet for the nine-hour overnight stint is a well-guarded secret, but there is speculation that he quickly snaffles his packed lunch off-camera as Emily Maitlis breaks down the declared votes.

Hopefully this year his snacking will remain clandestine, unlike in 1987 when he was caught on air with a mouth full of Mars bar.

media captionDavid Dimbleby gets caught eating on election night in 1987

Famous for his love of a bold tie, speculation is rife over which one Dimbleby will pick for the big night. BBC News has heard it might be a lavender and sunflower yellow polkadot, but we cannot be sure.

3. The swingometer

media captionGeneral election 2017: History of the TV swingometer

In 1959 the British people were introduced to the swingometer; the pendulum that can spell triumph or disaster for political parties.

It was a rather crude piece of card attached to a board which showed how many percentage points the vote had changed by.

But over the years it has become increasingly more elaborate and helps psephologists (otherwise known as election academics) predict an election outcome.

image captionRobert McKenzie helped refine the swingometer and was a recognisable face on election night night coverage in the 50s and 60s
media captionBehind the scenes in the BBC's election studio with Jeremy Vine

King of swing Peter Snow, who famously presented the chart for more than two decades, brought it into the 21st Century in 2005 with the BBC's first virtual swingometer.

But since the 2007 local elections Jeremy Vine has taken up the mantle, with increasingly whacky and outlandish graphics.

4. Bets are made, and lost

media captionPaddy Ashdown: "It's the very last time I will question a BBC exit poll"

In the 2015 general election the BBC's exit poll predicted the Conservatives would remain the largest party. In denial over the prediction, former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown said that if the poll was right he would eat his hat.

He attempted to row back from his initial statement, saying he would eat a hat if it was made of marzipan.

The BBC's exit poll was right, and true to his word Baron Ashdown ate the edible piece of head gear on Question Time.

After his fall from grace it is unlikely that any politician will make such idle threats again.

5. Expect competitive counting in the North East

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe North East get pretty competitive over vote counts

It's the Magpies v the Black Cats, it's the electoral grudge match of Tyne and Wear. Every general election Newcastle and Sunderland battle for supremacy to see who will be the first to declare their votes.

But since 1992 Houghton and Sunderland South (known as Sunderland South until 2010) has been the first constituency to declare a result in the general election.

Newcastle is hoping to triumph over their derby foes this year, but 25 years of winning form will be hard to beat.

  • How to follow election results on the BBC
  • Which constituency am I in, and who are the candidates?

6. Emily 'stat-attack' Maitlis

Emily Maitlis has become a staple of election night coverage since 2010, she does the unthinkable and predicts which political parties will win or lose marginal seats using the exit poll.

She's also one of the few presenters capable of using a six-metre interactive touch screen.

media captionEmily Maitlis and election touch screen

7. Election night bingo

image copyrightShutterstock
image captionLike the Withnail and I version, anyone attempting to play an election night drinking game is in for a world of pain

As the exit poll comes through and political commentators are wheeled into the studio, you can be sure that a few common phrases will crop up.

"I've never known an election like it," is a firm favourite with ministers, former advisors and the odd BBC political editor. The irony being that every election is unique.

"The British people have spoken" is another stock phrase which is repeated far too often by former front benchers who lose their seats.

"The pollsters got it wrong" is a recent addition, but expect to be hearing a lot more of it this election night.

And who could forget "The only poll that matters is the result".

Using these phrases as the basis of a drinking game is a futile endeavour, as they are repeated so frequently that you will be under the table before the first result is declared.

8. Expect some loony candidates

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionAlan 'Howling Laud' Hope of the Monster Raving Loony Party congratulates David Cameron on his victory in Witney in 2015

Every general election cycle some protest candidates descend on the incumbent prime minister's constituency to offer some light-hearted relief on an evening of nail-biting tension.

For years the leaders of the UK have been flanked by a veritable smorgasbord of landed gentry: Lord Buckethead from the Gremloids Party, Howling Laud Hope of the Monster Raving Loony Party and Lord Toby Jug of the Eccentric Party.

In 1987 comedian and psychologist Pamela Stephenson ran in Theresa May's current constituency on a ticket for the I Want to Drop a Blancmange Down Terry Wogan's Y-Fronts Party.

image captionSir Terry breathed a sigh of relief when Pamela Stephenson failed to get elected in Maidenhead

9. Don't expect to sleep

With 16 hours of edge-of-the-futon coverage election night "completists" won't be getting any sleep until 14:00 BST.

So get ready to plunge the cafetiere, gather your sugary snacks and set regular alarms in case your eyelids begin to droop.

If you have to get some rest, do it between 23:00 and 02:00 when fewer seats are declared.

But most importantly sit back, relax, and get ready for the greatest adrenaline thrill-ride in politics.

image captionRadio 1's Greg James stayed up all night to watch the 2015 election coverage. But this did mean the drive time show was lacking in energy