Election night 1997

Probably like many, I went to sleep the other night with the radio on so that I could follow the progress of the American presidential election through the night. Only, what actually happened was what happens every time I fall asleep with the radio on: I had a restless night’s sleep.

Each time I woke I also reached for my mobile phone which was lying face down on my bedside table, I turned it over, brushed my finger across the fingerprint reader to unlock it and tapped at the BBC News app as my face lit up from its feint glow. One question: who is winning? Please let it be Biden.

Of course, two days later and we’re still waiting.

Every election night I am reminded of that general election night in 1997, the one where Labour overturned the Conservative government and put Tony Blair into Number 10.

I was living in the Lansdowne Centre on Law Street in SE1, South London, a short hop, skip and a jump from Tower Bridge. I was living with about 13 or 14 other homeless hostel workers in this sprawling, converted school building. Three of us in the flat, four upstairs, five or six downstairs, two in the other upstairs area.

My dear friend David—with whom I am still in contact every week—invited us to watch the election coverage on the television in his room. What opulence to have a television in one’s room!

Just as the coverage was beginning on BBC 1, we piled through to David’s room. Drinks, snacks, excitement, hope. We’d all had enough of this Conservative government. Our newest homeless hostel, Lena Fox House, had opened a couple of years before in Bermondsey. Some local Conservative politician had been invited along and he waxed lyrical about what an amazing job the Tories had done in eradicating homelessness from the streets of London. We stood and looked confused at one another—if they had solved the homeless problem then why were we there? Why was he opening a new hostel for homeless young people?

The drinks were poured, the Pringles were being devoured, the swing-o-meter was in action on the screen, and the energy in the room was high. This was a party! A political party, but not a party political party.

And then someone said something.

I can’t remember what it was. But they said something. A word. And Graham, one of my flatmates suddenly leapt to his feet.

“THAT’S IT!” he shouted. “That’s bloody it!”

And with that he ran out of the room and down the corridor towards our flat.

The room went silent apart from the TV.

“What just happened?”

“I don’t know.”

“What did you say?”

“…I don’t know.”

A few minutes later, Graham returned to David’s room clutching that day’s newspaper.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I was doing today’s crossword earlier,” Graham explained, “and I only had one word left to get. I’ve been trying to work it out for hours. And David just said the answer. Look!”

He proudly showed us his completed crossword.

We probably applauded.

“That’s brilliant!” I said, a broad grin on my face.

We settled back into the party. The room hushed when the results came in. In proper pantomime style, we booed when Conservatives won seats and cheered when, well pretty much anyone else won a seat.

Some time much later, Steve returned from his shift at our sister hostel, the John Kirk Centre in Camberwell, SE5. His room was next door so he popped his head in.

Earlier that day, I’d seen Steve after he’d voted. Our local polling station was the hall attached to the Lansdowne Centre. It was literally next door. Out one door, in the next.

“How was voting?” I asked.

“Yeah, really easy choice,” said Steve. “BNP.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. The BNP, the British National Party, is a far right, fascist party. The Wikipedia article about the BNP features the word ‘nazi’ 26 times, ‘fascist’ 47 times. They don’t recognise UK citizens who are not ethnic white Europeans as British, calling them “racial foreigners”. Steve was black.

“The BNP?! You voted for the BNP?!”

“Yeah, it stands for the Black National Party, right?”

“No Steve,” I said, quite concerned. “It’s the British National Party. They’re neo-nazis. They hate black people.

“Oh, you are kidding me!”

For a moment, he looked forlorn, his head in his hands. But he couldn’t keep up the pretence for long. He burst into laughter. A huge, deep guffaw of a laugh. “Of course I didn’t vote for the BNP!” he said.

Steve stood at the door to David’s room.

“Have the BNP won any seats yet?”

“Not yet Steve,” I said.

Steve had a new audience for his joke and wound up a few people for a few minutes before his guffaws echoed down the corridor and he retired to bed.

I was on an early shift the next morning so I headed to bed sometime after midnight. Labour were doing well. There was hope. I fell asleep with my FM radio on.

I remember walking through the Meakin Estate on my walk to work the next morning. The sky was blue. The sun was shining. The birds were singing more enthusiastically. I had a skip in my step. There was a tangible feeling of hope in the air. It felt like a new world. The end of one, long dark chapter in British politics.

I’ve just checked the BBC news website again. Biden 253, Trump 214. Again, there is hope.

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Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Scrum master at Safeguard Global; latterly at Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

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