Election television marathon to roll

POLLING stations close tonight at 10pm, and from then the nation's main television networks will be dominated by news of results and projections as the shape of the new British parliament becomes clear.

POLLING stations close tonight at 10pm, and from then the nation's main television networks will be dominated by news of results and projections as the shape of the new British parliament becomes clear.

In fact BBC1 goes over to its election studio at 9.55pm, five minutes before the doors of the polling stations shut.

That is so it can get the opening title sequence over and for David Dimbleby to introduce the election team before 10pm.

Because at that time both the BBC and ITV (which is scheduled to start its coverage at 10pm but will probably come on air a minute or two earlier) will reveal details of their exit polls.

This should give the first indication of the likely result of the election - and over the last two general elections they have been very accurate.

The pollsters have not, however, forgotten the huge foul-up they made in 1992 when they predicted a Labour victory only for the Conservatives to hold on to power.

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BBC1 and ITV will be battling for viewers as the Dimbleby brothers - David and Jonathan - go head to head. ITV will be marginally quicker announcing the results, but most people will watch the BBC because they always do!

The first actual result will come through at about 10.45pm. It will almost certainly be Sunderland South declaring that Labour's Chris Mullin has been returned with a comfortable majority.

Any other result than that and Mr Blair had better start planning to move as far away from Downing Street as he can imagine.

It will be very difficult to extrapolate very much from this result. It is a safe Labour seat almost certainly with a below-average turnout.

Safe seats tend to behave differently from marginals on election nights - so unless there is a very large swing one way or another it will be difficult to tell anything about the country's voting as a whole.

Over the next hour there will be a steady trickle of more, mainly safe, seats.

One early seat to look out for is Torbay. This elected Liberal Democrat Adrian Sanders with a majority of a few hundred in 1997 but he pushed it up to 6,700 in 2001.

The result here will give an early indication of the strength of the Lib Dems in their south-west stronghold.

Another early seat to look out for is Birmingham Edgbaston. This is a traditional Conservative seat which was won by Labour in 1997.

Gisela Stuart increased her majority to almost 4,700 in 2001, but if the Conservatives are to mount a serious challenge they must win this back. The MG Rover collapse could influence the vote here.

From midnight onwards the results should start to come through regularly - although our local results are not expected to be very early.

This is because both parliamentary and county council ballots have to be checked before they are counted - in many consitituencies there are no county council elections so staff can get on with dealing with general election votes straight away.

South Suffolk is hoping to be the first in the county to declare - aiming for between 12.30am and 1am.

Suffolk Coastal is hoping to declare at about the same time.

Ipswich's result is expected about 1.30am to 2am, with Central Suffolk and North Ipswich hoping to get a result at about the same time.

The Prime Minister's constituency of Sedgefield is expected to declare between 1am and 1.30am.

Charles Kennedy's Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency is due to declare at about 3.30am and Michael Howard's Folkestone constituency is due to announce its result at 4am.

All of these timings assume there is no recount - which can add an hour or more to the final declarations.

All except five mainland seats are due to count overnight, with the rest due to declare by Friday lunchtime.

Northern Ireland seats do not count until Friday morning and the final results from there are not expected before late afternoon tomorrow.

OVERNIGHT a succession of politicians will be appearing on television to explain what the results mean for their parties.

Sometimes they are refreshingly frank, sometimes they offer little more than flannel.

In 1997 Lord (Cecil) Parkinson was a guest on the BBC's election night coverage as the results started to come in telling a grim story for his party.

Conservative seats in rural areas always declare later than more urban Labour seats - but after about 50 declarations, Labour had won several from the Tories as had the Liberal Democrats and not a single Conservative victory had come through.

Eventually “Con hold” appeared on the bottom of the screen. “Thank heavens,” said Lord Parkinson. “I had started to think John Major (whose Huntingdon seat was the safest in the country) might end up as our only MP!”

Not everyone is as frank as the former Tory party chairman.

When a politician says: “The voters are sending us a message,” what they mean is: “We're being heavily beaten because we got the election strategy all wrong.”

When they say: “Our message has got across to the core vote,” it means: “Only our diehard supporters have voted for us, we've scared off all the floating voters!”

Watch out for politicians who, early in the night, say: “I don't think we can read too much from one or two results.”

What they really mean is: “I'm going to disappear off to my own count in a minute and let some other poor chap explain why we're doing so badly.”

Of course, politicians also sometimes have to avoid being too smug when accepting victory.

For sheer bombastic enthusiasm at an election count, you'd have to go a long way to equal Peter Mandelson's crowing after he held on to Hartlepool in 2001.

“I'm a fighter, not a quitter!” he told his supporters after his seat came under attack from former miners' leader Arthur Scargill who attracted less than 1,000 votes.

Often you'll hear them say: “This is a reward for years of hard work,” meaning of course: “Let me out of the studio - I want to get to the champagne before everyone else finishes it!”

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