Biscuits, buttocks and shock results: Why by-elections are rarely boring

A bout of COVID, getting a speeding fine and a young man behind me – unbeknown to me – baring his backside at the camera while I was broadcasting live.

These are just some of the perils I’ve encountered covering by-election counts in more than 20 years at Sky News.

Mid Bedfordshire, on Thursday, will be number 40. My colleague Tamara Cohen will be at Tamworth.

There have been dramas and shocks too, as well as jubilation for the winners and despair and tears for the losers. And some by-elections have been held in extremely sad and poignant circumstances.

I’m guilty of blunders and gaffes too. At one count, not long after she became an MP, I mistook Angela Rayner for Jess Phillips. Whoops! Fortunately, Labour’s now deputy leader told me she was flattered.

COVID struck after the Hartlepool by-election in 2021 – “Red Wall COVID” indeed – and I copped a speeding fine leaving the Henley count in the by-election after Boris Johnson became London mayor in 2008.

The bare buttocks appeared on Sky News during a live broadcast in Eastleigh town centre after a by-election there in 2013, prompting frantic shouts of “Hand back! Hand back!” in my ear from the gallery. “Why?” I asked when I eventually did. Sheepishly, they told me!

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The first by-election count I covered for Sky News was Brent East, a seat formerly held by Ken Livingstone. Red Ken’s successor, Paul Daisley, had died and the Liberal Democrats’ Sarah Teather snatched the seat from Labour in the by-election.

And here’s a piece of parliamentary trivia I wasn’t aware of at the time: the Tory candidate was Uma Fernandes. Who? Well, she’s the mother of Suella Braverman, the home secretary, and was then a nurse and local councillor in Brent.

George Galloway’s win in 2012 was a massive shock

The biggest by-election shock was George Galloway’s victory in Bradford West in 2012, a by-election – like Brent East in 2003 and, more recently, Uxbridge and South Ruislip – which Labour had rather complacently been confident of winning comfortably.

On the evening of the Bradford West count, I had dinner in a smart Asian restaurant in the city with Gerry Sutcliffe, then MP for Bradford South and a former Labour minister, who was in charge of Labour’s campaign.

During the meal, a Labour well-wisher said to Gerry: “Your phone’s not ringing, Gerry.” Unperturbed, he replied: “No news is good news!” But it wasn’t. It was very bad news. Labour paid the price for its complacency.

When we arrived at the count, everyone in the hall was predicting a Labour win. But gradually the mood changed. I texted George: “Labour getting jitters here, George! Say you’re doing very well. What do you think?”

“Think I’m going to win, Jon,” he replied instantly.

“Labour and Tory MPs think so too,” I told him. “Keen to get you on TV.” I called him and urged him to come to the count and claim victory.

The all-nighter requires a stream of snacks and a well-considered sleep strategy

And the man known as ‘Gorgeous George’, never one to be shy or turn down publicity, duly obliged. He’d turned a Labour majority of nearly 6,000 into a victory for his Respect Party by more than 10,000 votes, a swing of more than 50%.

Labour whips were so furious that he’d won that they refused to give him an office in Westminster and so he very publicly set up a makeshift office in the middle of Portcullis House where everyone could see him. Typical showman George.

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Snooze, haggis and biscuits

Obviously, overnight counts, sometimes going on all night, call for stamina.

My formula is a late afternoon snooze in the hotel, a decent evening meal – a local speciality where possible, such as Barnsley chop at Barnsley Central, Lancashire hot pot at Heywood and Middleton and haggis at Rutherglen and Hamilton West last week – and then lots of bottled water and snacks, especially biscuits, through the night.

Sometimes, as in this week’s twin by-elections of Mid-Beds and Tamworth, there’s more than one count on the same night.

In 2006 I was at Blaenau Gwent, where Labour’s Owen Smith – remember him? – lost to an independent Labour candidate.

Smith was a former BBC producer and special adviser. I called him “the very model of a modern Labour candidate”, a description I’ve used many times. He later became MP for Pontypridd and fought Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership in 2016, but was soundly beaten.

Nigel Farage has tried and failed at seven by-elections

On the same night, Bob Neill was squeaking home by just 633 votes in the previously safe Tory seat of Bromley and Chislehurst. And here’s another piece of parliamentary trivia: which two now-famous frontline politicians were candidates in that by-election?

The answer is Rachel Reeves, now Labour’s shadow chancellor, and Nigel Farage, then a UKIP Member of the European Parliament, in one of his seven – yes, seven – unsuccessful attempts to get elected to parliament.

Successful by-election candidates who’ve gone on to become senior MPs include Chloe Smith in Norwich North in 2009, ex-soldier Dan Jarvis in Barnsley Central in 2011 – I’ll never forget the military-style polish on his shoes – and Robert Jenrick in Newark in 2014.

Some MPs bring about their own downfall.

Last year’s Stretford and Urmston by-election was held at Old Trafford

In 2016, Zac Goldsmith quit and fought a by-election in his Richmond Park constituency over plans for a third Heathrow Airport runway. He lost to Liberal Democrat Sarah Olney and I chased him round the room after the result in a vain attempt to interview him.

Some counts can be gruelling. Hartlepool, where I caught COVID but didn’t realise until the following Monday, wasn’t just another by-election that Labour expected to win, but was such a slow count that the result wasn’t declared until after 7am, the latest declaration in my 20 years attending overnight counts.

‘And it’s live!’

The extreme sadness came at three by-election counts.

Tooting in 2016, after Sadiq Khan succeeded Boris Johnson as London mayor, came on the day Jo Cox was murdered in her Batley and Spen constituency. Old Bexley and Sidcup followed the death of popular cabinet minister James Brokenshire and Southend West was the result of the murder of Sir David Amess.

Counts these days are often in enormous sports halls or leisure centres. Some years ago, if the leisure centre had a bar, Nigel Farage and his drinking cronies would get more and more loud and boisterous in the bar as the count went on.

The most unusual count venue was for the Stretford and Urmston by-election last year, in a hospitality suite in the Sir Alex Ferguson stand at Manchester United’s Old Trafford football ground.

In my 10pm live just after the polls closed, urging viewers to stay up late and watch our coverage I said something I’d always wanted to say on Sky News. Mimicking the Sky Sports commentating legend Martin Tyler, I declared: “And it’s live!” The gallery loved it!

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Some by-elections are fought on national issues, such as voters’ anger at Boris Johnson’s attempted cover-up of ‘party-gate’, while in others a local issue dominates and is decisive.

That happened in July in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Boris Johnson’s other former constituency. This time Labour hopes of victory were dashed in what became the ULEZ by-election.

When I arrived at the count I asked the returning officer what he thought. “At first, Labour thought they’d win this by-election comfortably,” he said. “But they seriously under-estimated the unpopularity of ULEZ.” How right he was.

In Rutherglen last week, the result was never in doubt. The only issue was how big would Labour’s win be. It turned out to be a swing of more than 20% against the SNP and could turn out to be a defining moment in the battle for the next general election.

So do by-elections matter or are they just a bit of fun and an entertaining spectator sport?

When governing parties lose, they claim they don’t and dismiss them as a protest vote. And that’s certainly true to some extent.

But if Rutherglen is indeed a turning point and Labour makes a spectacular comeback in Scotland, winning 20, 30 or even 40 seats and putting Sir Keir Starmer firmly on the road to 10 Downing Street, it will be remembered for a very long time.

I can, however, remember every by-election I’ve covered, some important, some not so important. But on the night, overnight counts can be exciting, exhilarating, surprising and great live TV.

So stay up late on Thursday for another Sky News by-election special.